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Locums keeps retirement at bay for pediatric oncologist

Photo collage of Dr. Michael Levien

A traditional retirement wasn’t ever in the cards for pediatric oncologist Dr. Michael Levien. He’s been a physician for more than 40 years — graduating from medical school in 1972 and finishing his fellowship in 1978 — but he’s still going strong. Even with the emotional challenges of caring for children with cancer, he has always felt he is right where he should be.

Dr. Levien has always had a desire to help people and knew he would attend medical school, even as a kid. “I think in Jr. High I first started thinking about it, but they wouldn’t let me go to med school before high school,” he jokes.

After he finished his fellowship at University of Virginia, he stayed on there as a pediatric oncologist until 1985. After a few years, he started making other plans, first opening a private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. Then came a permanent move: “I got an offer to go to the Cleveland Clinic which was very exciting. We decided to close the practice and move to Cleveland.”

Despite a couple attempts at retirement, Dr. Levien is still at Cleveland Clinic on a part-time basis. “I’ve been at Cleveland Clinic over 30 years,” he states with pride.

Challenges can be rewarding

There is no shortage of heartache when you’re working to heal sick children. When Dr. Levien chose his specialty, the death rate was around 80%. With a daunting statistic like that, he wasn’t sure he wanted to go into pediatric oncology.

“At that time, I would say there is no way I would go into this,” he says. “I found it very challenging.”

But he knew he could make a difference for the kids and decided to go for it. He’s glad he did. Over the years, the death rate has decreased from 80% to 20%. And the staff Dr. Levien has worked with has made all the difference, both for him and the families of the children they hope to cure.

Dr. Michael Levien and his wife

“I was so impressed with the incredible compassion and love the nurses and the staff physicians had,” he says. “It is tremendously emotionally draining to the staff and to these poor families, but you help them along. It’s very, very rewarding, especially when you surround yourself by the love and compassion of the other staff who are working with you. The turnover rate is very low which is surprising. They all love these kids and they all work very, very hard to take care of them.”

Retirement: a good idea…in theory

In 2012, with three decades under his belt at Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Levien made the decision to retire. But the idea was more appealing than the reality.

So he went to work again, this time at Children’s Hospital Colorado. After four years there, he retired for the second time. His second stint at retirement was no different than the first: something was missing in his life, so he rejoined the Cleveland Clinic’s retirement staff working part-time.

Dr. Levien has also completed several locum tenens assignments at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., and at Lafayette Family Cancer Institute in Brewer, Maine.  He liked the idea of locums because there are so many opportunities to make a difference.

“I am able to do the same thing [as with Cleveland Clinic] without being full-time — just being here when they need me. And the compensation is really good, so it made it very, very worthwhile,” he says.

For the past year and a half, Dr. Levien has been enjoying his new life with locums, and his wife joins him on every assignment.

“She always comes with me which is great for me,” he says. “She enjoys traveling. She really enjoyed the time in Georgetown and then in Maine — she is from New England — so she had fun up there. We did a lot of exploring up and down the coast of Maine. It’s fun to see other parts of the country you probably would never have an opportunity to see, so we’ve enjoyed that part very much.”

A future of possibilities

Taking each day at a time is how Dr. Levien prefers to practice medicine at this stage of his life. Full retirement is on the horizon but he’s not quite there yet.

Although he’s not currently working, he says he wants to work more locums assignments. “After a year and a half, I just need a break, but I can feel boredom coming on again,” he says. “We’ll see what opportunities arrive.”

RELATED: Using locums for career transitions

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