Refirement Story : Off the Beaten Track

William (Wim) LeMaire’s journey takes him off the beaten track – from the architecture of European universities to the jungles of Africa. This obstetrician’s story is not limited to birthing babies, but birthing a book too.

Wim’s story begins in Belgium, where he grew up during the Second World War’s German occupation. He attended one of Europe’s oldest universities, medical school at the University of Louvain in Belgium. Wim’s internship year was spent in the USA – after he was granted special permission by the dean. Such internships were unheard of until then.

The year 1957 took Wim and his new wife, Anne, to a small hospital in Schenectady, NY. And what a culture shock that was! But Wim and his wife survived, both professionally and socially. After that, it was meant to be back to Belgium for the required 18 months of military service. His alternative was to sign up with the Belgian Colonial Health Service for three years, which he did. This off-the-beaten-track man made off for the former Belgian Congo in Africa – only to face another culture shock! Two years later, the Congo obtained its independence and Wim and Anne were hastily evacuated.

Wim wanted to become an obstetrician and gynecologist – and to be trained in the USA. So back it was to the USA – this time, to Miami, where he completed three years of residency and two years of fellowship, before joining the faculty at the University of Miami in 1967. The next 22 years saw Wim wearing the three hats of an academic physician: teaching, research and patient care. He went up the academic ranks, did well and enjoyed his career – enjoying also being dad to four children by now. Wim planned to continue on this academic path. But life had other plans for him.

When his best friend and colleague died unexpectedly from a surgery complication at age 49, Wim re-examined his priorities. He was 48 and there was more to life than work – even if he loved work! So, at 55, he retired from his academic position, staying on as a voluntary faculty member – great advice from his chairman as he would later discover.

Wim still needed an income though and he and Anne toyed with the idea of doing something entirely different – like raising horses or starting an orchard. But obstetrics and gynecology were what he knew. So he continued in the profession, his plan being to work six months and travel six months. It didn’t turn out exactly like that.

Through professional journals, he learned about job openings in different places and at the age of 55, went off the beaten path for good – handling locum positions in places like: Japan, Pakistan, Alaska, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Mexico and the Caribbean. These places offered Wim and Anne wonderful professional, cultural and social experiences as they integrated into the communities they lived in and he continued to do intermittent locum work, mainly in Alaska, until 2012. In October of 2012, he had major back surgery, which – although he recovered completely – was a signal for him to call clinical work quits.

Wim is now 80 years old and still volunteers on the faculty at the University of Miami.

Over the years, family, friends and colleagues had urged him to write about his multi-varied experiences. Finally he relented and in 2012, wrote an e book, entitled “Cross-cultural Doctoring -On and Off the Beaten Path. It’s available for free at http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/161522.

So, what advice would Wim give to anyone wanting to change careers after 50?

  • Be open to adventures in life – the earlier, the better. If you’re open to adventures (like travelling) early on, you’ll be open to them later on.
  • Having kids early in life is sometimes an advantage. It readied Wim, mid-career, to get off the beaten path.
  • Have at least a little bit of financial security; it frees to you to make more choices.
  • Be able to step back from your “stuff”. This might include pets, plants, hobbies, a house full of artwork or carpets, golf buddies or bridge clubs. Be open to the freedom of letting go.
  • Learn to love travelling. And your spouse would need to too. This is not necessarily the tourist-type travel but the possibility of travelling to places while working and integrating into those communities and cultures.
  • See life experiences as the opportunities you need shake you out of your complacency – even if it is the death of a best friend.
  • Don’t be scared to change career. Leaving a safe and successful career is daunting. But getting off the beaten path can be enormously rewarding too!