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  • Writer's pictureBruce Campbell MD

Write About the Day You Decide to Retire

Updated: 6 days ago

Each author who has a piece in Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine is invited to prepare a post for Intima's Crossroads Blog that puts two or more published pieces in conversation with each other. As I was reviewing old issues, I ran across a wonderful story, "Country Doctor," that had been published in 2019. Below is my contribution to the blog.


Wisdom of the Ages: A Surgeon's Reflections on Writing, Vocation and Satisfying Endings

May 31, 2024

As I was creating Hal Winters, the character at the center of my short story, “Old Scrubs,” (Spring 2024 Intima) I imagined a rumpled, gray-haired, and unflappable older male surgeon who has seen it all. He heads to the hospital every day, goes through the motions and gets his work done without fanfare or fireworks. He hasn’t felt the spark of “why” he went into medicine for years but, as long as he remembers the “how,” he will keep plowing the same furrow.

Hal would have recognized his country cousin—the unnamed physician in Rory O’Sullivan’s “Country Doctor” (Spring 2019 Intima)—who drives through the village to the hospital in the middle of the night to calmly manage an old man with emphysema. We are not told the country physician’s age but, given his approach to the work he must accomplish, he seems to have been at the game for a while. The reader senses no panicked, What am I supposed to do next? The doctor’s reactions to the man’s labored breathing tell us, I’ve faced this many times before and know how to fix it. Let’s just wait for the interventions to work.

Both physicians have worked in their communities long enough to know the patients and their families. Both are old school enough to employ a familiar touch of recognition—on the hand or the shoulder—to simulate a moment of connection and comfort. Both get their work done, then find a place to retreat before deciding how they will face what comes next. Neither seeks out someone to offer a word of advice or support.

These fictional physicians face all-too-real moments that influence how careers might grind to a halt. Can I survive causing another complication? Hal seems to wonder. How long will I continue getting up at this ungodly hour? his country cousin might ask.

These are questions that medical training does not address. Seminars and scientific meetings help physicians launch and sustain careers but don’t provide easy answers on ending them.

Narrative and fiction can tackle the issue, though.

As a physician who also writes, I found myself increasingly addressing the end my working life through essays and fiction. I workshopped the first draft of “Old Scrubs” nine years before I quit operating. At the time, I pictured Hal as an old, ineffectual surgeon. Later, we became peers and good friends.

For years, I half-joked I would step back two weeks before being fired or having a major complication. Thinking—and writing—about the final career transition helped me understand my trajectory. After discovering Dr. O’Sullivan’s brilliant short story, I realized that others might be doing the same.

I am convinced that every physician and caregiver should pull out pen and paper, set a timer for five minutes, and respond to the prompt, “Write about the day you decide to retire.”

Write about the day you decide to retire

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