On June 26, 2019, just months after his 40th birthday, Roberto Luongo announced his retirement after 19 stellar seasons as one of the NHL’s all-time best goalies. He had gone into the off-season with an open mind about coming back. But when it was time, in May, to resume off-season workouts, he noticed that the fire that had always driven him to compete wasn’t there. And when he realized that he was actually dreading getting back onto the ice within a month, the decision seemed academic. “For the first time in my career, I wasn’t excited about it,” Luongo said.
Whether elite athlete, veteran soldier, successful entrepreneur or dedicated health care professional, the emotional, even troubling rationales given when taking the big step away from a beloved career into retirement are often remarkably similar. To that end, it can help to hear how one professional in one kind of career makes sense of this transition for those in another.
Luongo put his thoughts on paper. His heartfelt open letter to his fans explained his reasoning, a description that, with a few changes in reference points, would also aptly fit a physician’s final hurrah. Here is Luongo’s letter (with the medical parallels italicized):
“This is one of the hardest decisions I’ve faced in my life, and it took me a long time to make it. After thinking about it a lot over the last two months, and listening to my (tired) body, I made up my mind. It just feels like the right time to step away from (medicine) the game. I love (medicine) the game so much, but the commitment I required to prepare, to keep my (mind sharp) body ready, has become overwhelming.”
In announcing his retirement, Luongo had, for the first time, realized that the demands of his career were now more than he had left to give. As much as he likely had no clear alternate plans or ready opportunities, it was clear that one big chapter of his life was needing to come to a close.
Athletes are like doctors.
Even though athletes usually have shorter careers than almost anyone else, there are important parallels to other professions, including physicians, when they choose to pull away. Like Luongo, most physicians will have sacrificed much to develop the skills necessary to function in a demanding and competitive milieu, and are therefore deeply invested in their chosen career, But physicians will also eventually come to recognize both a declining appetite to stay in the game, and may even acknowledge their own personal limitations in the face of continued and often increasing demands, albeit usually decades later.
So what are the common substantive roots of the need to call it a day? Call these the “push factors” for medical retirement, the eventual recognition by physicians that the medical milieu is no longer the nurturing pool it once was. These driving factors are both external and internal, and both grow insidiously over a career, to reach a critical mass, a tipping point that eventually becomes the basis for leaving a career.
External push factors.
Externally, these factors are familiar to very physician: Staying “current” and abreast of endlessly changing clinical guidelines and propagating scientific literature; finding time to attend and document continuing medical education; Dodging the increasing vigilance and wrath of licencing bodies and Colleges; Maintaining the 24/7/365 obligation to respond to the needs, demands and increasing expectations of patients; And finding the support and downtime necessary for self-preservation, and to survive arguably the most demanding of careers. The joy of running a marathon does not usually grow.
Internal push factors.
Internally, push factors are often not as easily recognized, but, like Luongo, their eventual acknowledgment is the acceptance of both an irretrievable decline in interest, and the inability to withstand the stressors of the game going forward. For physicians, the long hours, erratic shifts, and recurrent poor sleep contributes to a chronic and debilitating level of fatigue, and may be the root cause of burnout for so many physicians by mid-career. With aging, and in the face of physical and mental abilities noticeably declining, mood changes, cynicism and irritability become common, and often inescapable. Running a marathon does not get easier with age either.
If any of this resonates with you, there is writing on the wall worth reading–it may be time to consider next steps, if for no other reason than self-preservation.
In part 2, another retiring athlete provides an entirely different perspective on retirement, one that is decidedly more upbeat.