Honoring our heroes

Retiring from medicine: The pain of losing our mentors and role models

It’s sad when our respected mentors pass away. It is also an inevitable part of retirement. However, there are ways in which we can carry on our mentors’ legacy.


I know it’s tried and it’s trite, but it’s also true: the gentle slide from summer into fall always gets one thinking.

If you’re in or maybe just eyeing retirement, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t the autumn of your professional life, something that should be celebrated and enjoyed more than dreaded. But it’s hard to deny or ignore the fact that one day, one week or maybe one month, you awaken, and things simply feel different. Something in the air, as they say. The internal clock that’s been measuring your life for years suddenly yields to a calendar.

A stark reminder

I was rudely reminded of this transition when two of my idolized med school mentors passed away within days of each other in August. They weren’t the first ones I’d lost, but their deaths in quick succession seemed like an ALL-CAPS reminder of what else retirement brings. Of course, they were older than me; when my classmates and I were newly minted docs, they had been in circulation—one might say “rotation”—for a while.

We looked up to them, esteemed them, feared them at times and, in major or minor ways, wanted to be them—or at least be just like them. And, let’s face it, there were a few whom we never wanted to emulate, which, as it turns out, was educational in its own right. But we undoubtedly took something from each of them, slowly assembling the 1,001-piece jigsaw puzzle that became our professional personae. They represent the clinical cosmic dust that is part of our makeup, our doctor-DNA, whether we know it or not.

They always seemed to me to be indelible and indestructible. And so, when I began to lose them, I was, at first, taken aback. Surely, they were too smart, too tough, too nice or too mean to let something like a disease or old age catch up to them. How difficult it must have been for them, I imagined, with their clinical acumen and experience, to process the afflictions that they knew would end their lives. The ability to self-diagnose and “self-prognose” is a curse we all share.

Leaders in the industry

Mentors come in many shapes and sizes. Because of my chosen specialty and its training requirements I stood across an OR table from nationally and internationally renowned “titans” of surgery. They not only trained me, but they also remained mentors and supporters well into my career. And I always knew I could call them for advice.

But just as important to me, if not more so, were those whose names the world wouldn’t know: the dedicated DOs in my osteopathic training programs. They were the interns, residents and fellows ahead of me in the queue, along with those hallowed attendings. In the halls and on rounds they were demi-gods. Spouting knowledge and wisdom that, in the days before iPhones, UpToDate and Epocrates, we actually had to absorb, memorize and spit back on demand. Their assessments of us weren’t always encouraging.

“Waters,” a whip-smart internist said to me one day in front of our entire rounding entourage. “You’re like a guy who has to swim a mile but gives up halfway and swims back because it’s too far.”

A great line I took to heart and still repeat to this day. That critique spurred me to appreciate the simple power of persistence in clinical medicine. One offhand remark in one minute in one day can stick with someone for a lifetime.

Facing the losses

As our early “influencers,” their mounting losses bring up an uncomfortable truth and perhaps a bit of a reckoning: How will we be perceived by those we taught and mentored? Will we be actively remembered or just casually recalled, if we’re recalled at all? It took me years to appreciate what some of them had given me. In some ways, our legacy is not really our patients —they would have seen somebody else if not us—it’s what we have hopefully brought to the physicians who followed us, whether they were one year, 10 years or an entire career behind us.

Our knowledge and our experience may slowly outdate, but they never leave us. If you’re still in practice, look around at your own potential legacy and see if there’s more you want to do. The secondary gain of fulfillment derived from teaching and mentoring may be part of the reason you decide that it’s not yet time to retire. And even if you’ve already crossed the Rubicon, there are always opportunities to share your wisdom with the physicians who are or will be caring for us. Pretty good ROI, if you ask me.

On the other end, if your important mentors and clinical heroes are still around, consider letting them know what their contributions meant to you. You don’t need to kindle a friendship or start a new professional relationship, just a heartfelt note will suffice. Do it now, before it’s too late. Let them know you took what they gave you and did well with it. Let them know if you passed it on. A little goes a long way when it comes to gratitude.

As I mentioned earlier, it is now autumn and thus no coincidence that the leaves are showing their true (mature) colors. They know the ground awaits them.

But not quite yet.

This column is dedicated to the memories of: David L. Silverman, DO; James C. Giudice, DO; Thomas F. Morley, DO; Silvio Zappasodi, DO; Joseph M. Pitone, DO; William F. Ranieri, DO; Floyd D. Loop, MD; Leonard A.R. Golding, MD; and William P. Tunell, MD.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Professionalism in residency: Managing interpersonal relationships during this journey

We are not immune: Recognizing National Physician Suicide Awareness Day


  1. John D. Hermann D.O.

    I was asked to be a mentor for prospective Osteopathic Medical Students and gladly agreed. The issue of pay and maternity leave came up a few months into the time I was a mentor. I tried to explain FTEs, staffing, reimbursement , just the general truth about the finances of medicine. I was asked to resign because I didn’t side with someone about getting a full time salary but taking 3 months off for maternity leave. The same thing happened working with medical students. I am not sure what I did wring but as a trauma physician I volunteered to teach students in a vascular access lab. I was never invited back and I wonder what I had done wrong. I am sure you imagine I am a terrible teacher but through the years from my residency to my time as a military faculty member I was given numerous awards for teaching.At one point in my early career I was the ChIrperson for CSCP, and the newly formed Resident organization, so I didn’t just get old and grumpy because I spent my career trying to give back to Osteopathic medicine. I eventually began to feel that what I had to offer, no longer had value. Eventually I stopped volunteering, stopped teaching classes and finally just withdrew from the Profession. It seems there is No room for Dinosaurs in our society. The comments to my post will prove my point, because some will not be able to not have their say.


      I didn’t finish before it was sent. My point was that there are Loyal Osteopathic Physician that want to share our knowledge because the Osteopathic Profession as been so good to us. A little tolerance, humility and aporeciation of voluteer faculty might be in order by Osteopathic Medical Students and Residents. I learned a great many unwritten treatment pearls by my mentors and feel sad that they will disappear.

    2. Bill Carnett

      Please accept my empathy. It’s a very different world (medicine) now as compared to even 20 years ago. If we were faced with a hard-assed attending we generally just dealt with it…suck it up baby. Unfortunately, as in the third paragraph of the article we are viewed as an “industry” not a “profession.” And there lies much of the problem. After leaving private practice, I was a department head of primary care at a 450 bed allopathic hospital. One day I was seeing patients and the MA I was working with was way behind…too slow. I stepped in and told her “no problem, I’ll get this.” Two month later the hospital board was threatening my privileges, LOL. No nothing came of it but the fact that we (docs) are only viewed as (bothersome) workers in the system is a big part of the issue. Frankly, largely our own fault. It seems now, students/residents can get through without even much significant inpatient experience…unfortunate. Don’t think its about Dinosaurs, rather we challenge the status quo….IMO of a much more inefficient and less professional medical world. Back when men where men……alas

  2. Joseph deKay, D.O.

    Common experience among allopathic and osteopathic physicians who retire and offer free mentoring: few takers. Perhaps once retired we no longer have a practice site, and that makes us less useful, but we seem to need to find other outlets.

  3. Robert E Fox, Jr FACOS

    Great reflection on our mentors as they pass on unannounced and much to our surprise. I agree and will reach out to my living instructors with a note of thanks. Great suggestion!

  4. William G. Anderson, D.O., FACOS

    As an advisor in the MSUCOM, I am pleased to be available at any time that I can Help.One need but call the office of MUCOM at e13-578-9603. Wendy Westbrooks or Ebony Howard are very knowledgeable about what we do to help MAKE THINGS A LITTLE BETTER

  5. Sally Smith

    Thank You Dr. Waters, for another great article! I really enjoy reading your experience and perspectives. Right (write!) on!

  6. Susan Cary

    To Dr. Anderson of MSUCOM,
    Having little exposure to DOs, I entered MSUCHM (MD med school at MSU, Michigan State U). CHM & COM shared a number of classes. By the December break, I was totally confused, having learned that DOs were often considered not as ‘well-educated’ as MSs. All I saw were motivated kids taking all the courses I was taking, PLUS the osteopathic courses! While I get that many DOs want to do allopathic residencies, I constantly wish I had learned the osteopathic, hands-on medicine to treat so many of our eras’ illnesses (over-use injuries from media use, back strains and injuries) benefit from osteopathic treatments.

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