Dr. Mary Austin-Seymour: From Radiation Oncologist to Community Medicine Provider
Why did you step back from full-time employment (or make your latest transition)?
I was 65 and there were changes going on in my practice. There was a bargaining situation with a hospital–we had some financial issues and couldn’t pay the new doctors enough. My exit was a negotiation tactic. I was 65, so it was logical, but I hadn’t really been planning to leave. It all fell together. It wasn’t like I had a carefully honed bucket list at-the-ready. Physicians work so hard there isn’t much time to develop hobbies, especially when you’ve also raised a family during those years.
What surprised you most about the transition?
How heart-broken and bereft I was. How much I missed my work and my work family. My brother, also a physician, retired first and he had warned me about that. It’s a huge loss in terms of connection with patients and colleagues, not to mention finding meaning on a day-to-day basis. I defined myself according to those terms for so long.
What are you doing now?
It took me awhile to figure it out, but I’m now volunteering in a free clinic in Washington State. The State has nurtured and supported free clinics and provides malpractice insurance for volunteer doctors. I’m in an urgent care unit for people who don’t have health insurance.
How did you decide to pursue these opportunities?
I knew some about free clinics, but I was a sub-specialist, working in radiation oncology, so I assumed I didn’t have the skills to work in an urgent care clinic, which is quite different. It took me a long time to believe I could develop the skills. I wanted to learn new things and make a contribution, but it took some courage.
What advice would you give to someone in the same circumstances?
Spend time trying things out and look for advice that resonates with you. I explored other aspects of volunteering. I costumed two plays in our community theater. I did training for local domestic violence shelter, and will be involved in that in some capacity. In the depths of not feeling that I was not going anywhere—I found a blog by someone who is part of the F.I.R.E movement. It suggested taking a look at skills I already had and considering how I could use them in retirement. I felt this was the best piece of advice out there. In my medical career, I’d already gone from academic to community practice and seen that big change is possible when you rely on your core skills. So, I drummed up the courage to branch out even further in medicine. I had a lot to learn, but I saw that I could do it because of the foundation I already had. For example, I am now re-learning diabetes management in an urgent care setting.
Given your vast experience both professionally and personally, do you have a top 5 or 10 list of things that you would tell people if they would like to follow in your footsteps or follow a similar path?
-Look for the part of your work that gives you joy and see if you can replicate that. For me it was connection with patients and being part of a team doing worthwhile things.
-Search for writers who talk about what you’re going through and read with an open mind.
-Look to family for support.
-Don’t give up your professional credentials too quickly.
-Spend time thinking about why you trained for what you trained for in the first place. In my case, I wanted to be a primary care physician early on, so now I’m doing it.
Dr. Mary Austin-Seymour trained as a radiation oncologist and practiced for 35 years. She has two grown children, one a primary care internist. Mary is a new grandmother and a hiking, traveling, reading, theater and opera enthusiast.