I have been telling myself and others I was never going to retire. I truly believed I would just keep working until I faded into the sunset.
I started to work for the veterinarian across the street from my home in Mitchellville, Iowa, when I was 11. My first job was to help a sow in dystocia by delivering four live pigs. It was great fun and I was hooked from that point on. I started to help with farm calls on Saturdays and after school and then full time during the summers.
When I was in Veterinary School at Iowa State University the great practical experiences I had in junior and senior high helped me put context to most everything we were taught. The hands-on experience was invaluable during professional school.
Early in my career I wanted to practice companion animal surgery in private practice, which I did with my mentor/partner from Iowa, Dr. Don E. Sceli, who had moved from Mitchellville to Phoenix and had started a companion animal practice. We practiced together for six years and started three practices.
Eventually we sold the practice and I returned to Iowa State University to teach surgery. Teaching was more fun than anything else I had been involved in. My partner and mentor knew very early on I was destined to be a teacher and he always encouraged me to follow my calling.
After teaching for several years, I was channeled into hospital administration and practice management and spent the next 28 years working in these areas at Colorado State and Louisiana State University. It became clear I needed to continue teaching while I was in administration to keep my mind grounded in practice, which had always been of deep interest to me.
I continued teaching surgery and started to work with veterinary technician education in an effort to improve our efficiency in practice through the use of quality trained support staff. I could schedule my teaching time in the surgery lab so this allowed me to get my administration done and plan my teaching.
As I became more involved with technicians, a need for a clinical textbook became apparent, so I decided to champion this cause. Along with a number of dedicated contributors and Saunders Publishing Company, the first edition was published in 1985. This resulted in eight editions of the Clinical Textbook for Veterinary Technicians (1985-2014).
The balance between hospital administration and teaching (management/technicians) worked well for me for those 28 years, but I became more focused on teaching and working directly with veterinary and technician students. In 2007, I moved from hospital administration to full-time teaching, which gave me a new outlook on life.
How lucky could I be to be doing full-time what I had always loved to do? I didn’t see an end to this at all.
I was lecturing in Japan in September 2012 when I developed serious pain in my right knee from a 40-year-old ACL injury. I had chosen to ignore the initial injury and now I could hardly walk due to the final collapse of the medial meniscus and bone-on-bone contact.
Fortunately, my 14-year-old grandson was traveling with me and moved me around in a wheelchair so I was able to finish my six-city lecture tour. I could stand and sit without pain, I just couldn’t walk.
When I returned home, I had a total knee replacement and spent the next three months in rehabilitation. My recovery gave me a lot of time to think.
When was I going to face the reality that I was not going to go on forever? It became clearer to me that I had been blessed with a "reality check” in preparation for the next chapter of my life.
I had progressed through several chapters in my book of life, which included childhood, early introduction to veterinary medicine, formal education, U.S. Army and surgical residency, veterinary practice and veterinary teaching/hospital administration.
Now I was thinking about the next chapter, which might be titled "transition” before the final chapter, retirement.
It has been difficult to accept that I must transition from full-time work to a life of part-time work and enjoyment of life. My family has been very supportive of my work and now they are encouraging me to go into this transition period. I know this change is best for everyone.
Asking Important Questions
The question for me has been: When should I retire? The answer is to take this process in steps.
I have been afraid to retire completely as I have observed other veterinarians retire completely and then develop serious health issues. There are others who have retired and then expanded into their hobbies. I have one problem: I have no hobbies except veterinary medicine.
If you are a practice owner, then you can control your transition by reducing your work week or restricting what you do to the areas of medicine you love or continue to do the management while having your colleagues continue the practice.
As a practice owner you are in the driver’s seat. You will need to think about transition toward retirement part-time when you stop having fun doing what you are doing.
In my case, the transition period has been for me to find replacements to take over my textbook editorship, faculty to take my classes and administrative duties allowing me to retire.
Upon retirement, I will immediately start teaching part time in two veterinary technician schools and do some C.E. consulting. This will keep me busy about three days a week, allowing some free time. I have not had a lot of free time since I was 11, so I will have to ease into this phase.
I have done a lot of traveling through lecturing at some 500 meetings and conferences around the world. My family has often gone with me, so additional travel is not high on my list of things to do. Staying engaged in life and in veterinary medicine is on the list. Maintaining one’s health through regular exercise and diet are also important so that you keep both body and mind active while slowing down a bit.
Over the years I have talked to veterinarians all over the world and have found we are very similar in our personalities, goals and motivation. Striving for excellence is something we cannot stop doing.
The answer to retirement, I believe, is in continuing to do the things you love most as long as you want and then start a transition into other areas that provide you with satisfaction.
I have a real interest in gardening and collector cars so these activities are now starting to be included in my schedule. Family time is more important as grandchildren enter the picture.
I have often asked myself: What would I have done without veterinary medicine? I have no answer, as I have always wanted to be a veterinarian. I want to continue to be a veterinarian and contribute back to our awesome profession.
How lucky can one person be in finding my calling at the age of 11 and following that dream into retirement? Amen.
Dr. McCurnin is a professor of veterinary surgery and management at Louisiana State University.