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Is there life after dentistry?

Sept. 1, 2000
The author realized that there were other things he wanted to do while he was still in good health and relatively young.

The author realized that there were other things he wanted to do while he was still in good health and relatively young.

John L. Kennedy, DDS

The practice of dentistry was wonderful, and I can`t imagine a better working life. Unquestionably, those of us who chose dentistry have been truly blessed. But, ultimately, most of us must ask the question, "Is there life after dentistry?"

Some ask this question early in their careers, and others consider it only when their health won`t allow them to continue to practice. For me, the question came about four years ago at age 57.

I came home from the office one evening tired and worn out, which was becoming routine. I realized that there were other things I wanted to do while I was still in good health and relatively young. Many of us know that being unable to take extended periods of time away from the office is one of the downsides of dentistry. Some years ago, surveys showed that less than half of practicing dentists ever take a full week of vacation. In fact, the great majority of practitioner have never take a full month off at one time during their entire careers. Sad, but true.

I have given up advising even my children on what they should do with their lives, except in the broadest, generic terms. All of us must "whistle our own tune through our own beak." Other people can`t determine what is best for you.

A small number of dentists should, perhaps, work until they drop for their own mental well-being. Some, through lack of planning or financial catastrophes beyond their control, have no choice but to continue working. Others - those who are financially secure - have a choice. For those who do, I would like to relate my personal story of what has happened in the three years since I stopped practicing dentistry.

To sum it up, I`ve had a wonderful time! Boredom has never been a problem. The little perks of retirement have been terrific! I`m practicing a bit of quasi-Zen; I eat when I`m hungry; and I sleep when I`m tired. When I was working, I got up each morning at 6 a.m. Of necessity, I went to bed at a reasonable hour (reasonable became a "relative" term when I was writing articles for Dental Economics).

Now, if I want to read or write in the middle of the night, it`s no problem. I haven`t thrown away my watch, but I have very little use for it. Most dentists don`t need a watch because they are so time-conscious when working that they know what time it is at all times. Now, I not only don`t know what time it is, but sometimes I am not even sure what day it is until I stop to think about it.

Most of all, unless I have a rare appointment, I don`t care what time it is! There is a simple luxury in getting up when I feel like it, then dropping in on a coffeehouse and "smoozing" with friends. It`s made all the better by knowing I don`t have to be anywhere at any particular time.

A whole new life

Six months before I sold my practice, I bought a 35-foot RV. My children thought I had lost my mind! They knew I didn`t work on cars or fix things around the house, that I had never "gone camping" in my life, and that the biggest vehicle I had ever driven was a station wagon.

They also let me know that I was taking a "step down" by traveling around in an RV. They identified an RV with "trailer trash" and old people. Bewildered, they asked, "Who are you going to talk to at these trailer parks? I`ll bet if you ask any of these people if they know anything about Michelangelo or Leonardo, they will say to you, `Oh, Leonardo cooks a great chicken fried steak down the road.` "

Well, they were wrong on all counts! Not only have my wife and I had a delightful time with the independence of going anywhere we please, but there are many RV parks in the United States where the average client is intelligent, interesting, and successful. In many parks, million-dollar RVs are regularly seen, and those in the $250,000-and-above price range are quite common.

Sure, crummy RV parks exist, but that is much different than the crummy neighborhoods that can be found in most of the towns and cities we visit.

Two winters ago, we found ourselves at a park in Palm Desert, Calif. This park has a fine golf course, great tennis courts, beautiful flowers and grassy areas, multiple swimming pools, hot tubs, workout area, etc.

Tennis anyone?

The owner found out that I had been a touring tennis player before I went to dental school. He asked me if I wanted to start a tennis program for him the next winter. I said, "Why not?" So, I have been "the tennis pro" at this RV country club from January through March for the last two years. It has been outstanding!

My program is going gangbusters; the weather is unbelievable in Palm Desert during the winter (temperatures of 70 to 90 degrees during the day); and the people are enthusiastic and full of energy. I work only the hours I wish; the park owners are happy to let me "do my thing." But it`s the people who make the place, no matter how beautiful it is.

Dean Edell, MD, and David Counts, PhD (a cultural anthropologist), studied those who participate in RV life.

They state: "This is the healthiest group of people we have ever looked at." After six months of living in this particular park, I have found no reason to disagree with Edell`s and Counts` findings.

If you think that RV living is for sedentary, geriatric people, look again. There are many people in their 30s and 40s living in these parks, along with a very healthy group of people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. They all find this active, independent lifestyle to their liking.

Among my students, I have a former president of a Fortune 500 company and another very athletic man in his early 50s who was the police chief of a major city and now sports a beard and pony tail.

There are also multiple physicians and dentists, professors, engineers, highly successful business people, artists, writers, and one photographer who did 22 covers for Sports Illustrated. Many of them have lived a life of adventure, residing on sailboats for years, sailing in many oceans in the world, riding motorcycles across the country, piloting their own aircrafts, etc.

One owner of this large park told me that owning an RV park is different from owning any other kind of real estate. The major difference is, you don`t have people locked into anything like you do with a house or a condo project. If you don`t please the people who stay in your park, they just turn the key on their RVs and go somewhere else. I`ve made many good friends in this RV Golf and Tennis Country Club ... and, most of all, I have the time to talk to them!

Living out my dream

In the end, though, I might not have retired at age 58 if I had not had a dream of riding a bicycle through Europe for an extended period of time - something I couldn`t do while still in practice. Obviously, this is not something everyone wants to do. It clearly depends on a person being healthy and relatively strong, which my wife and I were three years ago and still are today - but we may not be five or 10 years from now. We bicycle some 60-mile days, but we also do a lot of 20-mile days.

For the last three years, we have lived in France for three months each summer and fall. For many years, we rode our bikes in Europe two weeks at a time, but I wanted to really get a feel for Europe through living there for an extended period of time. We rent a beautiful home overlooking a 15th-century chateau and a 12th-century cathedral in a lovely town that routinely wins "The Best Flower Award" for communities in France. This award is a big deal for the French.

No one who lives in this small city speaks English as his or her first language, so we are forced to speak French, which is what we wish to do. We do not have a car in France, only bicycles equipped with panniers (saddlebags). We ride for four or five days at a time, returning to our house for a day or two, and then we`re off to another place. For someone like me who, during his working life, knew where he was going to be a couple of weeks ahead of time at 10 a.m., the freedom of having no schedule is fantastic.

We get up in the morning, eat breakfast and then - and only then - decide in which direction to go. We have no set schedule, stopping as we wish for café au lait and pastry at a village along the way.

Frequently, lunch is eaten under the shade of a tree. The bread, cheese, sausage, vegetables, and fruit in France - to say nothing of the wine - are magnificent! We don`t start looking for lodging until three or four in the afternoon, and we`ve never had to spend the night in a field along the road. A wonderful feature in Europe is that most local trains have cars where you can place your bicycles. If you get tired of one area, you can just board a train and go a few hundred kilometers to another area and start riding again.

Beauty of the countryside

History, antiquity, and art are everywhere. I continue to marvel at the Romanesque and Gothic churches found in most French villages. They are routinely located in the village square, frequently surrounded by a pastry shop, small grocery store, and an open-air café where the local people always greet us with kindness and interest. Many churches we find are on no tourist-book list, and most of them contain at least one piece of art in the interior. Many have wonderful stained glass, a characteristic of Gothic architecture. In the countryside, France runs on family, food, wine, and love, with everything else coming lower on the list.

Many Americans - mainly those who only have been to Paris - complain that the French are a "snotty" people. Unfortunately, many waiters and cab drivers in Paris leave a great deal to be desired, but we have never run across this attitude in the countryside.

The people have been wonderful to us, partly because we are attempting to speak their language and because we are on bicycles. But I sincerely believe that even if we didn`t know a word of French and were visiting these places in a car that the people in the countryside would treat us well.

In addition, it`s not expensive to live in France the way we are doing it. We rent our French house for $800 per month. It is full of antiques and wonderful appliances, including a television and a washer and dryer.

Our large cottage is next to the home of the owners of this rental house, Michelle and Marie. They have a wonderful vegetable garden and fruit trees. The produce of these trees and the garden miraculously appears on our doorsteps at regular intervals. Food in the restaurants and stores outside of Paris is no more expensive than eating in the U.S.

Is something missing?

You might ask, do I miss dentistry? Not really! I miss some of the people, and I miss doing some of the procedures. But I practiced dentistry for 30 years and, as wonderful as it was for me, that was enough. I certainly don`t miss any of the paperwork or hassles. I can`t think of a better life than I have at this time - six months in New Mexico and surrounding states, reading and writing; three months in Palm Desert, Calif., playing and teaching tennis; and three months in France, riding bicycles and participating in the wonderful culture.

Is this for everyone? Probably not. But for those of you who have the means and the dream to do something other than dentistry, don`t wait until time, age, and health no longer allow you to follow the dream. Try it - you might like it! I have ... and, for me, there truly is life after dentistry!

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"Tennis pro" Dr. John Kennedy shows one of his students how to serve.

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Dr. Kennedy and his wife, Susan, get ready for a bicycle ride in the French countryside.

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