A Retirement and A Reservation: A Retrospective Autobiography


Sok K Lee, MD, MA

Spring 2012 - Volume 16 Number 2



A retirement is a rite of passage that requires careful planning, because it forces a retiree to make a shift in the paradigm in life.

For 37 years, I was a healing professional, a breadwinner, and a working spouse. I am now a jobless loner, an inactive pensioner, and a homebound spouse. In this retrospective autobiography, I suggest a few points to help my younger colleagues to better their upcoming retirement: professional, financial, social, and familial. To overcome Erikson's identity crisis, I volunteered to be a wounded healer at Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

My volunteer medical service at Warm Springs Indian Reservation was a good antidote to creatively overcome my postretirement blues.

At age 32, as a young allergist and pediatrician, I began my practice at the South Bay Medical Center (then Harbor City) with great hope and enthusiasm. Born and educated in Seoul, Korea during post-Korean War poverty, I outcompeted and thrived in my education to accomplish a medical degree at the College of Medicine, the prestigious Seoul National University in 1970. After 33 years of medical practice and after seeing all 3 children married out, I began a retirement life in 2011. Retirement, I found, is not the same as what we typically consider a rite of passage, such as graduation, marriage, immigration, parenthood, and even grandparenthood, because a retirement is not a progression, but a retreat. I am not sure what my eventual last breath will be like, but death is what every one of us will experience once. To be truthful, I might have been in postretirement blues, if I am allowed a self-diagnosis. I would like to write on my experience of the retirement as a retrospective autobiography, so that my fellow partners may live better than I have. To describe my journey, I must share with you my 10-week-long medical service at Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon, as a volunteer pediatrician in Spring 2011. A joy in heart blooms like a flower when it is shared with others. I write this reflection to share my joy of the reservation service and as a chance to debrief my adventure, as once implied by Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground.1

A Retirement, Reflective And Autobiographical

As a partner physician at the Permanente Medical Group, I have worked for 9 hours a day or more at the Medical Center. After 33 years of healing work, I figure that I've spent more than a quarter of the whole waking hours of my life at work. Therefore, it was no wonder that my retirement was a big psychological shock when I met the last day of my job in December 2010. Although I had read The Physician by John P Callan2 to prepare myself to be a retired physician of comfort and freedom, and although my wife and I attended the 2-day seminar on retirement with one additional visit to the Walnut Center to understand our financial situation, my retirement felt like a locomotive screeching to a sudden halt after long years of steady steamy work. To show the predicament of my retirement life, let me categorize them into the 4 aspects: professional, financial, social, and familial.


On the day after my retirement, there were no patients waiting in need of my service. I faced no duty to serve and no responsibilities to care for my asthma patients who needed ongoing adjustment of daily medications! In a few short hours, I had been transformed from needed, caring professional to stay-at-home retiree. Although I might have found relief from these duties, I realized that I had been thriving on the ongoing professional demands and responsibilities. Before retirement, occasional vacations out of my arduous healer's work were a respite to reinvigorate my daily service, avoiding what is commonly referred to as doc's burnout syndrome. But this retirement, this having-nothing-to-do was boring and meaningless. In retrospect, I should have kept my professional licenses and memberships active, instead of downgrading them to retired status. Once my retirement was official and I was disconnected from the electronic medical record system, I lost all connection to my colleagues and partner friends. Fortunately, I had kept a few e-mail addresses of close friends and dear patients.


I found myself downgraded from bread winner to pensioner. Moving from regular paychecks to a fixed income has been a challenge, mostly from losing the satisfaction of receiving a regular paycheck. I feel insecure about potential needs for long-term medical care in the coming years. And my retirement cost me an additional $30,000 in taxes. I probably should have saved and invested more. I certainly should have taken full advantage of the company-sponsored 401K and Keogh plans; they are a great benefit for Kaiser Permanente physicians.


I was a partner friend and now I feel I am a deserted loner. To keep in touch with old colleagues, I joined the Kaiser Permanente Retirement Society. Now, I attend some lunch meetings and I play flute weekly as a hospital music player. I have returned to the after-hour clinic as a part-time pediatrician.


I was transformed from working spouse to homebound husband. The stereotype is true and although I expected that family dynamics would change when I was home all the time, I was challenged to find I needed to readjust. I was fortunate that my wife joined me during the ten weeks I volunteered at Warm Springs Indian Reservation.

Happily, I discovered that my adventure to Warm Springs Indian Reservation turned out to be a cure for my postretirement blues.

The Warm Springs Reservation

The Warm Springs Reservation was established in 1855 when the US Government signed a treaty with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs: the Wasco, the Warm Springs, and the Paiute. In exchange for losing 95% of their tribal lands, the 3 tribes were provided with provision to establish a farming town, new buildings on the reservation, and a health service.

In the 1970s, Indian Health Services was established to enhance the quality of medical care on reservations. The reservation tribal government of Warm Springs built a lumber industry, hydroelectric power plants along the Deschutes River, and a resort-casino, Kah-Nee-Ta. There is a Native museum and a second casino in progress next to the museum. After decades of attempted assimilation and loss of culture, the tribal government is trying to revive and revitalize the Native culture by promoting Native language classes, the seven drum Waashat long houses, the Indian Shaker church, and Native arts programs.

The medical care for the Warm Springs Natives, at the "Health and Wellness Center" is provided by Indian Health Service, staffed by 5 physicians of family practice and other ancillary services. They care for a population of about 4000 with a referral hospital nearby. I was able to see 250 children at the clinic for 10 weeks and made a healer's visit to child protective service and the Early Child Education Center. I became a member of the museum, my wife and I hiked almost all of the local trails around the reservation, and I have learned to play my Warm Springs Song with the American Indian Native Flute, made by Little Leaf, a Native flute maker.

To heal the wounded heart, the Warm Springs Native People are trying to forgive past oppression by doing forgiveness rituals. A few years ago, the Warm Springs People walked the path of oppression as a symbolic way to remember and to forgive. They are trying to revive their traditions by returning to the ancient fishing spot, Sheras Fall, and building Long House Churches.

Several months after my volunteer service at Warm Springs, I realized that Americans need to harmonize our western culture with the Native one to better understand their ways of life and their past history of oppression. Anger and fear will not build better communities. Rather, heartfelt repentance and forgiveness, leading to a friendly embrace and mutual trust, will beget a peaceful land of America. My way of doing this at Warm Springs was to serve the Native children and to learn the Native flute, languages, and religions. I look forward to continuing my retirement service in 2012 by volunteering for 3 months at an Apache Reservation in Dulce, New Mexico.

A Retiree, Humiliated? No! Reinvigorated

Being retired and aged should not mean being brushed off as being inefficient, feeble, and slow; rather my senescence offers new opportunities. Although I may need to compensate for memory loss by keeping notes, and I may not be as agile as I once was or able to pass a Romberg test, I am, perhaps, more patient, thoughtful, and careful in making decisions and am wiser from my abundant experiences. I realize that I am closer to my own death, and see that this is a time for reconciliation for peace in personal relationship. To my surprise, I read that Carl Rogers, an American psychologist, announced at the age of 75, that he had accomplished more after turning 65 than he did before.3 I was encouraged when I discovered Dr Rogers' reflection of his retirement. Furthermore, retirement life is a wonderful time to rejoice in the freedom from planning for the rest of life and a time to serve the less fortunate. Finally, it is a time of self-transformation and a time for contemplation to try to reconcile one's own end of life with grace and peace rather than with despair. Despair or integration? It is the choice we are obliged to make as admonished by Erik Erikson.4 For me, the Warm Springs medical mission was the time for a spiritual creative transformation in the first year of my retirement.

To end, I share a poem born in my heart on the hiking trail of Warm Springs: A Poetic Letter from the High Desert Wilderness.

Sagebrush leaf smells pungent Wild birds warning of my presence
A lone hiker finds his own footsteps on the way back.

Solitary man feels not lonely with wind and clouds
Talking to the Other in his heart, I am learning to be a butterfly in contemplation.

1.    Dostoevsky F. Notes from the underground. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1980.
2.    Callan JP (editor). The physician: a professional under stress. Norwalk, CT: Appleton-Century-Croft; 1983.
3.    Rogers CR. A way of being. New York: Houghton Mifflin; 1980.
4.    Erikson EH. Identity and the life cycle. New York: WW Norton & Company; 1980.


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