Career Path

“Don’t It Always Seem to Go, That You Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone”

I have recently been thinking about this old Joni Mitchell song. I tried to retire last year and succeeded in stopping clinical practice after 30 great years of hand surgery. For better or worse, I ended up immediately running against 7 other people (including 2 other doctors) for an open Georgia State Senate seat. The seat became vacant due to the sitting Senator’s run for Dr. Tom Price’s congressional seat. With a lot of help from doctors and others, including many hand and other orthopaedic surgeons, I was elected and sworn in June 2 of 2017.

Although I had accumulated plenty of leadership and business experience, I soon learned that a logical approach to problems didn’t work very well at the Capitol. I was appalled by the process, the behavior and the anger directed at me from one or the other side regardless of how I voted.

As one of two women in my party’s caucus, the room was a little intimidating at first and I was amazed as I watched perfectly good healthcare legislation killed by committee chairs in the two chambers who had a deeply adversarial relationship.

I soon began to realize that I had just left the world’s best job for a new career that was missing many of the elements that made hand surgery so satisfying. I did my share of whining about our EMR, excessive regulations, ER call and difficult patients during my hand surgery career, but as I got further into my new job, I found myself missing my patients, colleagues and staff. I loved doing surgery and getting to know my patients. I enjoyed getting generally good results and getting to work as part of an efficient team every single day. I had forgotten the luxury of a positive work environment and the respect and trust most people hold for their surgeon!

A patient that stands out in my mind is a young rheumatoid who also has scleroderma. She had lots of involvement of her feet and hands. She had already had multiple surgeries on her feet when she was referred to me, and over several years I did multiple surgeries on both her hands. Once she was able to walk and her hand function started to improve, she began to paint.
She and I got to know each other very well and she has become a successful artist. I own several of her paintings and see her at various gallery events. Her hands are far from normal, but she has gained enough function to pursue her dream. What could be more rewarding?

I hope that all my hand surgery friends will reflect for a moment on what a huge honor and privilege it is to be a hand surgeon. The combination of intellectual challenge, productive work and positive relationships make hand surgery hard to beat. For all who are feeling beat up, burned out and frustrated, take some time off, spend more time with your kids and pursue things that make you feel better, but don’t give up too soon. Retirement may be different than you expect!

Article written by:

Kay Kirkpatrick is currently a Georgia state Senator, retired from private practice in Atlanta, Georgia with Resurgens Orthopaedics. She is also involved with patient safety initiatives and teaching TeamSTEPPS. When she is not at work, she likes to do dog therapy with her golden doodle, play golf, and watch Stanford football. She also enjoys spending time at her country place in northwest Alabama.

Join the discussion

  1. David

    Kay, thank you for sharing this story. Like you, I value my relationship to my patients in the office and my relationship to my team in the OR. After reading this, I will value them even more!

  2. J. Mark Evans

    Congratulations on the retirement, and condolences on entering the political arena. Similar to you, I retired two years ago, but due to health issues. I’m doing fine, but find that even more than the surgery, I miss my interactions with patients, and coworkers. Fortunately, I have other avocations, and social outlets, in addition to work with various boards.
    I believe having or finding other outlets is key, otherwise it would be easy to fall into a rut of not having enough to do, which would be upsetting, given the pace at which we’ve lived life.
    Thank you for trying to address the problems in politics. Given your track record in the medical and leadership worlds, I am confident that you’ll be a success, it just may take more time than you’d like.


    • Kay

      I agree with you about having other interests and think it is helpful to set that up ahead of time. I just didn’t think it would be politics! Wishing you good health.

  3. Monica Wood

    Dear Kay,

    Like you, I am retired from my practice and miss it terribly. Unlike you, though, I was forced into retirement from MS. As I was getting sicker and knew I had to cut back on my hours, it was getting more and more difficult to get through each day. I’d ask myself frequently, “Why do I keep doing this?” Just as I’d get to the point of utter frustration with all the challenges you mention (EMR, regulations, etc.), though, someone would come in and keep me going. I remember the last one before vertigo abruptly ended my career. She was a worker’s compensation patient on whom I’d done a revision carpal tunnel release 6 weeks before. Many of my colleagues would never have touched her. I looked at her initial post-op note and it was “pain, pain, pain, pain, pain.” I’d sent her to therapy already. I braced myself for a difficult visit and strategized, “I’ll send her to work conditioning and get her rated.” Feeling the weight of MS fatigue and chiding myself for taking such a risk with this patient, I knocked on the door and entered the room. She gave me a huge hug! She was BEAMING!! “My hand hasn’t felt this good in years! I want to go back to work!!” Yes, I had taken a risk on her; a risk others would not have considered. In so doing, I had personally improved her life. How could I leave a profession that gave me that level of gratification??!! If I could, I’d go back in a heartbeat!!

    • Kay

      I am sorry you had to cut your career short. But what an honor to be a positive change agent for any length of time!

  4. Peter J. Stern

    Well put; as always and thanks for what you do.

    Despite our current bureaucratic quagmire and EMR, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my career as a hand surgeon. For me, it has been a great ride serving as an educator, volunteer, and care giver. I have no problem getting up early each morning and look forward to the challenges that the new day brings.

    As testimony to my love of medicine: for the last 20 years, I’ve saved all my thank you notes in a desk drawer. No one has ever read them except for myself. On occasion, I’ll read a few of them, it’s a huge ego trip! I suspect when I croak and my wife cleans out the drawer, she’ll read some of those notes and perhaps remark: “he wasn’t that bad”. Hopefully, she’ll appreciate that my long hours away from home made a difference in someone’s life.

  5. Melissa Young Szalay

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I struggle with balancing my love for hand surgery with the ever increasing bureaucracy and financial pressures of private practice that invade my practice every day. I will keep your wise words in mind on tough days.

  6. Vince Zubowicz

    Thanks for sharing your career change experience. I’m terrified of retirement. Annoyed by bureaucratic part medicine but it can’t be as bad as politics.

  7. John A. Goldman

    Working with patients is the piece de resistance. I still plug on with solo rheumatology.
    The problem is that the raping of medicine by government bureaucratic overregulation separates the patient from the physician. The Imposition of unworkable EHR is actually hurting patients and interferes with the physician-patient interaction and relationship.
    I for one am glad you are there. You heard my comments at the recent Sandy Springs meeting. It is obvious the state leadership needs guidance

  8. Veronica Diaz

    Thank you for this post. I’ve suffered from “grass is greener syndrome” as of late, and reading this helps me snap out of it. I also save my letters from patients! Glad to know you and Dr. Stern do as well.

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