Collage of Levine Cancer Institute physicians who returned to work after retirement

News | one month ago

Retired Doctors Who Can’t Stay Retired

Ask Tom Brady. When you do what you love, retirement doesn’t always stick.

“The most important thing I can do is to articulate to cancer survivors that the disease doesn't need to define them. Survivorship can be a time to reinvent themselves,” says Dr. Thomas Rapisardo, an internal medicine physician with Atrium Health Levine Cancer Institute.

Rapisardo knows a little something about reinvention himself. He retired for just one month after spending more than 40 years in internal medicine, including work at Atrium Health and Veterans’ Affairs. But he learned that traveling and fishing couldn’t compare with his love of caring for patients. So he returned to work, but in a new role.

Rapisardo is among a group of doctors who returned from retirement to work part-time at Levine Cancer Institute’s survivorship program. Survivorship is a rapidly growing discipline, dedicated to helping people live healthy, thriving lives after they complete cancer treatments.  These doctors have returned to work to begin second chapters of their medical careers, supporting survivors who are launching second chapters themselves.

Supporting Cancer Survivors’ Long-term Health

This program was the brainchild of Dr. Derek Raghavan, President of Levine Cancer Institute. He noticed that situations like Rapisardo’s were fairly common: Even when some doctors were ready to retire from the demands of full-time medicine, they couldn’t step away entirely. They missed patients. Meanwhile, cancer survivors need long-term care after treatment ends and could benefit from extended appointments with experienced physicians. Raghavan saw a natural fit between doctors who seek opportunities to care for patients and cancer survivors who need special relationships with doctors – both of whom seek medicine at a slower pace.

“I’ve been doing cancer care for more than 40 years, because when you’re doing internal medicine, you’re taking care of cancer patients,” Rapisardo says. “You have to understand how and when to follow up, what you should look for. The role I have now is just that, but in a lot more in-depth. I’m able to really get into topics that a regular primary care doctor might not have time for.”

Survivorship is an increasingly critical aspect of cancer care. This discipline has roots in a good problem: We have more cancer survivors than ever, thanks to screenings that catch cancer earlier and treatments that give patients even more effective options. Even after they finish treatment, though, cancer survivors need long-term care. Levine Cancer Institute’s survivorship programs help patients manage the emotional and physical challenges of post-treatment life.

Some treatments, including certain chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapies, can result in delayed effects such as heart disease or hypertension. Dr. Samuel Zimmern, who spent his career as a cardiologist, returned from retirement to help survivors manage heart issues.

“Although some treatments can effectively treat cancer, they can leave adverse effects on the heart,” Zimmern says. “I love working with these patients. They have lots of questions, and we’re able to spend the time we need discussing the answers.”

Dr. Michael Richardson is another part-time survivorship doctor. While he enjoys his work as Director of The Leon Levine Foundation, he also missed time with patients from his previous work as an Atrium Health physician. Richardson brings expertise in genetics, which is important to guide cancer screening recommendations for survivors and their families.

“We can spend as much time together as we need covering their questions about genetics,” Richardson says. “Truly making a difference in someone’s life is rewarding. I can’t think of anyone in health care – from the security guards to the folks who keep our buildings nice to people at all levels of clinical care – who could do this stressful work without having a heart for helping patients improve their lives. It’s a passion-driven discipline.”

A Mutual Benefit for Patients and Doctors

Dr. James Hall, the former director of gynecologic oncology at Levine Cancer Institute, is another doctor who returned from retirement to work with cancer survivors. He retired in 2016, and for a while, he enjoyed having time to read, golf and play tennis. “But you can only do so much of that,” he says. Now Hall joins these part-time doctors who make sure cancer survivors get the targeted long-term follow-ups they need. Their work also frees the time of full-time oncologists, allowing them to spend extra time with patients in need of active treatment in their cancer care.

“Those oncologists – the surgical oncologists, the radiation oncologists and the medical oncologists -- are tremendously busy because they have a huge volume of patients and a great deal of complexity to manage and treat. The whole idea for our group is to see those patients who have already gone through all of their treatments and who are now in follow-up,” Hall says. An important message is that the most rapidly growing group of cancer patients are those who have been cured- and they need special attention and follow up.

The benefit between the two groups is mutual. Cancer survivors can get extended appointments with doctors, and doctors return to doing what they love: caring for patients.

“Dr. Raghavan has a huge heart for putting patients at the center of care,” Richardson says. “Dr. Rapisardo, Dr. Zimmern, Dr. Hall and I – who all had long, long careers in patient care –understood what he was doing and we’ve been able to add to that. Our biggest gift is to build on what he started.”

Their involvement in survivorship shows how much medicine is more than a profession to these physicians – it’s a passion, it’s a purpose. And these cancer survivors continue to teach them about the power of reinvention and embracing new chapters.

“The lessons that you learn from your patients are the biggest gift that you get from practicing medicine,” Rapisardo says.