TRAVERSE CITY — After years of focusing on his medical schooling, his medical practice and his continuing medical education, Tom Dunfee finally gave up his Detroit area practice and retired north.
But he didn't quit medicine altogether.
"I didn't want to give it up. I wasn't ready," said Dunfee, then 60, who feared such an abrupt break with his life's work could cause him to lose his identity.
So shortly after retiring to Little Traverse Lake in 2000, Dunfee decided to keep his hand — and his heart — in medicine by volunteering once a month at the Traverse Health Clinic, a nonprofit organization that treats uninsured and underinsured adults.
In 2002 he returned to northern Kenya, where he'd been twice before, to teach at a medical school and take care of patients with terminal AIDS. That work led to teaching American medical students in the Caribbean in 2009.
Now, though Dunfee said he's finally decided to give up on medicine, he admits he's thought about providing urgent medical care to victims of the next natural disaster by volunteering with Doctors Without Borders.
"You never quite give it up," he amended.
Currently in the U.S. there are more than 250,000 retired physicians, 350,000 retired nurses and 40,000 retired dentists, according to the national organization Volunteers in Medicine. And most are looking for a meaningful way to spend their retirement.
For many, that means volunteering their medical services in small doses. They know that serving those in need can be as therapeutic for the caregiver as it is for the patient. A Michigan law makes it easier by not requiring retired physicians who volunteer to carry malpractice insurance.
Though he didn't get paid for his often-depressing work in Kenya, Dunfee said the experience was "one of the high points of my professional life.
"The need was so great and the students of medicine were so focused and hard-working and attentive because they wanted to contribute," he said. "And the people were incredibly grateful for our services."
Susan Griffiths feels more fulfilled as a volunteer with Munson Hospice House than she did as a paid nurse and psychotherapist working in Fond du Lac, Wis.
"You have more freedom because there are no time constraints in relation to how available you may be," said Griffiths, who retired to Interlochen in 2007. "When you're a volunteer, if it takes an hour to feed a patient a bowl of soup, you can take that hour. And then you can walk away. You don't have to do the paperwork."
Unlike many medical professionals, Griffiths, 69, said she had no intention of volunteering when she retired.
"I just felt like I was escaping to the 'North Woods.' I was done working," she said. "I was just so burned out I didn't even want to keep a plant alive."
But after two years of allowing nature to nurture and fill her back up, "I realized I was no longer functioning on empty and it was time to look at what was available," she said.
Now she volunteers every Friday at Munson Hospice House, where her work ranges from patient care to housekeeping chores like doing laundry and making coffee to supervising skilled training for other volunteers.
"It's almost like your body just remembers that stuff," she said. "I'm just thrilled to go into work because it puts me in the world. It reminds me that there's another world that I truly loved and received gifts from but I'm no longer part of it. Instead I've been able to use what I've learned in work and give back as a volunteer. It's almost like a fruition. I'm just not wilting on a vine."
Medical volunteers are the backbone of Traverse Health Clinic, which was the beneficiary of 4,200 hours and $5.6 million worth of donated medical services in 2008. And retired volunteers are especially appreciated, said Clinic Director Meg Lancucki Benner.
"They're very important because they can be more flexible with their schedule. It's just really nice," Lancucki Benner said.
Currently the clinic has about half a dozen retired nurses and two retired physicians including dermatologist Patrick Tobin.
"He's there at least once a month and donates dermatology services. He has a line out the door," said internist Leslie Heimburger, the clinic's other retired physician. "To get in to see a dermatologist is difficult in our community, especially without a referral. At the clinic people wouldn't get their skin cancers taken off if he weren't there."
Heimburger, 55, began volunteering at the clinic while sharing a private practice and fell in love with the work. So much so that she decided to retire at the height of her career to spend more time with her four children and volunteer at the clinic every other Monday.
"There's no office politics, people really care, no one's being paid. You really put things in perspective," she said. "I see some of the sickest people since I've been in training. People come in who haven't had care in five, 10, 15 years."
Heimburger learned the joys of volunteerism in high school by assisting her dad, a surgeon, on medical missions to countries like the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Nicaragua.
Now she said volunteering is both a way to keep her hand in and ease out of medicine without the stress associated with a private practice.
"I can go and see people and still go home. I don't have to take calls, go to the ER," she said. "And you feel good about doing something positive."