How to Stage Your Second Act

These physicians’ stories prove that you can still lead a purposeful, fulfilling life post-retirement.

Walter Bethke, Managing Editor
12/9/2013

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “There are no second acts in American lives.” Though pundits and scholars debate what he exactly meant, one popular reading of his quote is that once we carve a name for ourselves in a particular field of endeavor, for good or ill, that’s what will define us, that’s our one shot. From there, we spiral inevitably downward into the third act, the falling action, the denouement, the decline. Many people, both physicians and non-physicians, feel the same way about retirement. They look on it as an end to the legitimate life they’ve lived and the start of a prison sentence of boredom and frustration. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. Here, ophthalmologists who’ve retired from clinical and surgical practice tell how they flipped open the pages of their life’s script and wrote a new second act, and retired happy.

Easy Does It

Retired ophthalmologists say that, when it came time to say goodbye to ophthalmology, a gradual disengagement was better than an abrupt break.

“I’d espouse tapering off, rather than going full-bore and then immediately stopping,” says W. Banks Anderson Jr., MD, who treated patients at the Duke Medical Center for 40 years, eventually becoming vice-chair of the ophthalmology department. “In my case, I first gave up OR surgery when I turned 70. Though this was stressful, there were benefits to it: For one, you’re not on the call schedule anymore, so you’re not wedded to your phone or pager; and, two, if you operate on someone and then go on a trip, you have to make sure you arrange for someone to see them if they have a problem in your absence. It hangs over your head.

“So, I continued with my clinical practice for four years, and then, eventually, for the fifth year, I cut out Fridays,” Dr. Anderson continues. “I gradually gave up my office practice until retiring completely at age 75. I feel this gradual retirement is wiser than just quitting, because it acclimates you to not being in the office every day.”

David Miller, MD, had a fruitful career in ophthalmology, serving as chief of ophthalmology at Beth-Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and helping pioneer the use of viscoelastics, namely Healon, in cataract surgery. After 20 years at the hospital, though, he decided it was time to slow down. “For me, it was gradual,” he says. “I went from full-time academic as head of the eye unit to private practice with some former cornea students of mine. At that point, I was in my 60s and I only came in one or two days a week. That was very healthy. I never felt as if I were swimming alone somewhere.”

Though connections with family and friends are important in retirement, physicians say it’s the activities that you connect with during your work years, the ones you think about as you rush home on Friday afternoon, that make retirement something to look forward to. Here are some ways ophthalmologists have found fulfillment in their post-work years.

Dr. Anderson’s Violin


Music has always been a part of Dr. Anderson’s life, though it wasn’t until he lost it that he realized how important it was to him.

“I started playing violin in grammar school, and continued playing through high school,” Dr. Anderson says. “In my last two years of prep school, however, I learned to play lacrosse, a game few folks knew how to play back then. Then, at Princeton, lacrosse took up an awful lot of time, and I didn’t play the violin.” He still kept it with him wherever he went, like an old friend that he didn’t talk to much anymore but couldn’t dismiss. “I didn’t play it much in medical school, except around Christmas,” he recalls. “Then I got married and started a practice. Basically, I didn’t play the violin for 30 years.”

W. Banks Anderson Jr., MD, (center, wearing glasses) plays two concerts a year with the Duke Medicine Orchestra. (Image courtesy Verena Mosenbichler-Bryant, PhD.)
Then, he came home one day to find that his house had been robbed—his old violin was gone. “When you play an instrument, you spend an awful lot time with it,” he says. “And then, when it goes out of your life, even if you haven’t been playing it, you get a grief reaction. I found myself feeling that I didn’t want to be without a violin, so I got a new one. Then, I felt that I sounded so much better with my new violin that I started playing again.”

Years later, fate intervened again. This time, though, it was in his favor. “Around the time I was retiring completely from ophthalmology, the Duke Medical Center started up the Duke Medicine Orchestra,” he says. Dr. Anderson saw his chance to take the hobby that had given him so much pleasure during his years of clinical practice and turn it into something more in his retirement. He now plays second violin in the DMO. “We play two concerts a year,” he says. “The last one was Dvořák’s New World Symphony. We’re now practicing Tchaikovsky’s Symphony Number 6, Pathétique, two pieces by our conductor’s husband, and a piece for a brass choir—something without strings.”

Being reunited with his love of music has taught Dr. Anderson something that he thinks other physicians could learn, also. “Cultivate your interests before you retire,” he says. “Don’t isolate yourself in medicine 24/7.”

Keeping a Hand in Things

Some folks retire from ophthalmology and find that the thing that brings them fulfillment is … more ophthalmology. Here is how two physicians stayed involved in medicine while still making time for themselves.

Retinal specialist Thomas Aaberg retired as chair of Emory Eye Center in 2009 at age 73, after having served on the faculty since 1988, but he never stopped thinking about helping patients. “For me, the great benefit of medicine is the people and trying to help them,” he says. “And I found I can do that as a voluntary physician.” He keeps up his licensure, and currently volunteers at two hospitals, Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Ga., his home state, and McCall Memorial Hospital in McCall, Idaho, where he and his wife spend their summers.

“I knew Grady Hospital well because it’s a part of our teaching system at Emory,” Dr. Aaberg says. “At Grady, we had always relied on community physicians to come in and oversee things and be available for questions from the residents. So, it was a natural move for me to go there once I retired.

“McCall, Idaho, is a small town in the mountains,” Dr. Aaberg continues. “When I went there, I found that the hospital had no ophthalmologists so, as a volunteer, I take care of ophthalmic cases that come in. I handle cases such as corneal foreign bodies, subconjunctival foreign bodies and lacerations in the cornea or sclera that aren’t full-thickness and don’t require repair in the OR. The hospital has good slit lamps, good ultrasound and some other facilities. However, you don’t want to work on someone who was in a car accident with a huge stellate laceration that requires a microscopic closure—they just don’t have that equipment. They also don’t have vitrectomy equipment or big dollar items, so we have to send those cases down the canyon to Boise. However, with me there, the other physicians know they’re not sending down cases unnecessarily—it’s a long drive down the canyon with one eye patched.”

Dr. Aaberg says one of the surprise benefits of volunteering is that he’s no longer on the clock; he can take as much time as he wants with a patient, and the patients love it. “I volunteered at my son’s practice for a while in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and, after I left, he would have to see the patients I had seen and they’d be disappointed,” he recalls with a chuckle. “My son came to me after and said, ‘Dad, you shouldn’t have spent that much time talking with patients because now they expect that of me.’ It was devastating for the other doctors to hear the patients say, ‘When’s that other doctor coming back? That older doctor, I want to see the older doctor.”

For ophthalmologists who’d rather retire from the clinical end of things but still keep a hand in research, one possible route is to become a consultant to industry. This is the path that Perry Binder, MD, took.

Like other doctors who find fulfillment in retirement, Dr. Binder had set the stage during his practice years by serving eight years in academic medicine, running a private ophthalmic research lab for 25 years, and then operating a clinical practice while doing consulting on the side for 11 years. “I found if companies like what you have to say, they ask you to be a member of their advisory board,” he says. “Then, in 2008, I gave my partners six months’ notice that I was going to be departing and, in 2009, I entered the third phase of my career: corporate ophthalmology.” His time in corporate ophthalmology was busy. “At that time I was medical monitor for AMO, and I also became medical monitor for AcuFocus,” he says. “Then, I developed software for analyzing outcomes which was purchased by Accelerated Vision, a company from Kansas City, which then hired me as a consultant. A company called Stroma invited me to be a consultant for them, as well.” Dr. Binder resigned from AMO in August of 2013.

Dr. Binder says that, if consulting seems like a good fit for a physician, he or she should start working toward it now. “If you haven’t done consulting work in the past and are now retired, you don’t have much to offer them that they can’t get on their own. But if you have done consulting in the past, then maybe clean up your resume and come up with a very specific, positive plan for a given project or product. Some of these jobs still exist. You just have to get a good match.”

Arts and Literature

Like Dr. Anderson with his music, some ophthalmologists find that, in retirement, they finally have the time they need to throw themselves into their artistic pursuits.

Edward L. Shaw, MD, had been interested in art ever since his grandfather would take him to the museums in his hometown of New York City, but he says it was solidified in college when he took a course in art history. “Then, during my career in ophthalmology, I was fortunate to be able to travel and lecture at many foreign meetings,” he says. “I was therefore able to explore art in many countries, especially Italy, England and France.” After retiring, he relocated to Los Angeles and visited its museums. He knew what he wanted to be: a docent at the Getty Museum.

After proving his worth in an interview process, Dr. Shaw was selected for the program and began training that continues to this day. This constant education is what he loves about it. “You always train,” he says. “I’m still training, and doing research on different objects. That’s part of the reason I like it—it doesn’t stop.”

The other part he likes about being a docent at the Getty Museum is the teaching, the passing on of his knowledge to the next generation of art lovers. “We teach, mostly to children,” he says. “We usually find out what schools are coming and the ages of the students, and then try to be age-specific with what we select.” He adds that his love of art, and growing know­ledge, has made his personal trips to museums both here and abroad more rewarding. “The beauty of what I’m doing now is that when I go to Italy, the more I know about the art the more I can enjoy the trip,” he says. “I just keep going and going—I’m driving my wife crazy, but that’s a different story.”

Once Boston’s Dr. Miller left his practice, he began to have thoughts of betrayal and murder. That is, he began writing plays. “My wife, Renee, is an actress, and I got interested in writing plays after attending her performances,” he says. “I realized I enjoyed writing fiction, but I wasn’t really good enough to write a novel. But I realized I could tell fictional stories in a play, because there the actors and the director do a lot for you.”

Owing partly to the scientist in him, Dr. Miller enjoys writing plays about actual figures from history, playing “what if” with their lives. He’s written plays about such luminaries as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Shakespeare and John Tyndall. “Tyndall was a physicist in the 19th century and considered by many to be the father of the concept of global warming,” he says. “But as I researched him, something very interesting turned up: His wife murdered him. She supposedly accidentally gave him a double dose of his sleep medicine and wasn’t tried for the crime. However, when I looked up the medicine, I determined that a double or even quadruple dose couldn’t kill a person. No one noticed that, so I thought it would help in writing a play.”

Though his protagonists are larger-than-life, his productions are more humble, and Dr. Miller likes it that way. “First, we’ll put it on in our living room for some neighbors,” he says. “Our complex has a meeting room that holds about 50 people, so we might put the play on there. If I’m lucky, we might get a space at the local Brookline Library that holds 100 people.”

His wife usually plays the lead female role, and she recruits her acting friends to fill out the rest of the cast. Everyone has fun and works hard, especially Dr. Miller, who polishes his work constantly. In life, as in his work, he’s never found it that hard to imagine a second act. “I get a big kick out of it,” he says. “And, after the production’s done, it’s time to think of writing another play!”  REVIEW