WA News Feature Articles A Big World Out There
A Big World Out There
Written by Peter McClelland
Monday, 28 November 2016

The Baby-Boomer generation has been sliding into retirement for a few years now, with a lot more waiting in the wings, and some of them are doctors. Medical Forum spoke with three medicos who are winding down both gently and gradually.

Passionate retiree

201612-Adele-Ely-in-PatagoniaDr Adele Thomas and husband Ely Lazar in PatagoniaDr Adele Thomas, who works a 15-hour week, could best be described as ‘retirement pending’.

“I’m very fortunate being a GP because of the flexibility of the hours. I plan to do another three years, I’m 70 years-of-age now and I’ll reassess it again in 2019.”

“If I were a surgeon or working in hospital setting it would be much more difficult to work part-time. I’ve got the best of both worlds. My husband and I are very active with our business Passionate Retirees, we give talks, we write books and we’ve even embraced podcasting.”

“And we love chasing tornados!”

“It’s so important to have a purpose in life. We’ve all heard stories of medicos who suddenly stop working, close their rooms and end up staring at the walls. I can understand how some doctors are reluctant to give up their prescribing pads and we all know that’s been an issue with the Medical Board.”

“Being able to prescribe for family members is often the last vestige of professional identity and that can be a difficult thing for some people.”

“There are some inspirational stories out there, too. I know one colleague who’s very active in seniors’ organisations and also volunteers as a guide in Kings Park. And there’s another in his early ’90s who, despite early signs of Parkinson’s, has discovered a real talent as a sculptor.”

“And I read that the oldest person to swim the English Channel is a 74-year-old cardiothoracic surgeon!”

Adele points out that, as doctors, there are some constraints when sharing stories in a social situation.

“A woman’s world tends to be highly group-focused and a lot of interesting things in our lives as doctors are patient-centred. There’s something of a barrier there because that’s privileged information and it can be quite difficult to fully participate in social chit-chat.”

“I’m experimenting with that aspect in my quilting group, but I’m beginning to understand that there are some areas of my life I’ll never be able to talk about.”

“Medicine has been an incredible career. I’ve had one patient for nearly 40 years who came here as a refugee with hardly a word of English and babies I delivered are now bringing their own children to see me.”

“It’s all been such a privilege.”

Woman of the soil

Another medico with three years left in her stethoscope is Dr Susan Downes. She penned some thoughts about her retirement plans on an aircraft bound for a 10-day stint in Port Hedland.201612-Susan-Downes-and-Sheep Nov16Dr Susan Downes at her 'retirement' property

“I’m 67 years-old and still working as hard as ever, although the medical component has reduced a little as I devote more time to my family and new property. As a locum remote/rural obstetric DMO I thought I’d just accept fewer jobs, however, here’s a fine balance between working less and retaining my credentials.”

 “My strength is remote clinical work in unconventional settings. I’ve never liked board meetings, committees, paperwork and I absolutely hate lines of traffic and shops.”

So, where would Susan Downes rather be?

“I swapped a house in Fremantle for 500 acres of glorious rolling hills between York and Northam with a farmhouse that’s more than a century old. I’ve had a full year of seasons there, I love it and I’ll never move again. This is where I will die.”

“When I first moved here lots of people said, ‘no one will visit you’ but I have more visitors here than I ever did in Fremantle. They’re not just day-trippers, either. Many of them stay a few nights in the farmhouse. My grandchildren flourish out here and my entire family throw themselves into every project.”

Susan’s grandmother used to say to her, ‘time passes faster when you’re older’ and she is starting to agree.

“I’ve just reached five years post-breast cancer, awaiting the results of my last check-up and have just made a review appointment with my surgeon. My hair, nails and energy are returning and I feel pretty good. There’ve been a few ordeals over the last few years. My husband died from a rare lymphoma, my widowed Mum also has breast cancer and is very frail with fractures. I also had a very traumatic home burglary and all my family’s antique jewellery was stolen.”

“I’m a bit concerned that I’ve probably only got 13 good years in me and then there’ll need to be a change from helping everyone else to needing help myself.”

“I keep telling myself that I have to be happy and make the most of each day. For me, that means gardening, keeping bees and sheep and I also build drystone walls. It’s a skill I learnt in Cumbria before returning to Australia and I’ve got many more to go!”

“I intend to be a loving and whacky grandmother to my three grandchildren (one more to come) and expose them to the beauty of nature and the land.”

“Hopefully that will provide a balance to the digital hype and commercialism of their modern world.”

Making plans

201612-Clarke-Helen-Dr-Aug-16Dr Helen ClarkeA career in obstetrics means late nights, working weekends and an incessantly ringing telephone. But Dr Helen Clarke wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“I can absolutely say that there’s no other medical specialty I’d rather have done. I’m delighted that I chose obstetrics!”

“It’s been a joy and a privilege that people have trusted me to look after their babies. The hardest part now is seeing patients and knowing that I’m not going to be around for their next delivery. I’ve been well-blessed because medicine has given me a great career and a wonderful life.”

Helen, who is 61, has her eyes firmly focused on June 2017.

“I’m so looking forward to it! Actually, I haven’t told too many people about this so it’ll be ‘breaking news’ courtesy of Medical Forum. The people I have told all say, ‘good on you and well done!’ which is nice. I’m pretty excited about it, actually.”

“Quite some time ago, when I was wondering just where obstetrics was heading with all the insurance complications, I did a degree in Ultrasound. I’ve been working in that area, on and off for a while now. Once I’ve stopped delivering babies I’ll do a few sessions of ultrasound a week, which is great because I think I’d struggle if I had to retire abruptly.”

“I don’t really see medicine with a typical ‘retirement’ label attached to it. That seems to fit an office or corporate job, the ‘gold watch’ scenario. Most of us have worked long and hard and are probably not well suited to a complete and sudden halt in our professional lives.”

“And it’s not too difficult to have a smooth transition if we put some thought into it early enough.”

Helen’s plans post-June next year involve family, languages and perhaps a little more work.

“I have a daughter who’ll be studying medicine in Melbourne next year so I’ll be visiting her. I’m also learning Italian and I’d love to become really fluent in that, too. And there’s a lovely Italian hospital in Tanzania that’s desperate for people. I might volunteer my obstetric skills and improve my Italian at the same time!