Rethinking Residency was lucky enough to sit down with Chelsea Turgeon, MD, self-described and proud “Residency Drop Out”, former OBGYN, career coach and world traveler. Despite the large time difference present while she travels around central Europe, Chelsea was kind enough to take time and tell us her story. It is so rare to find someone who left in the middle of residency and is not only willing to talk about it, but also discusses it in an objective and helpful way so that others may fully understand her journey. We hope that by showcasing a real and thorough examination of life after leaving residency, current or future residents with doubts about their future might have somewhere to turn.
Let’s start from the beginning. How did you end up in a Residency in the first place?
I was always very interested in psychology at a young age. By the time I was a teenager, I had my own subscription to Psychology Today, which I am pretty sure most other teenagers did not. I used to wait for the new issue every month or 2 and read it cover to cover. Once I got to undergrad, I majored in psychology and really saw 2 paths forward. I could use my degree and pursue a PhD or some sort of advanced degree and stay in academics, or I could apply for medical school. When I would discuss these options with friends, family, etc, almost everyone seemed most impressed with the ‘medical school’ route. Hearing all of the positive feedback around “Wow, you’re going to be a doctor” pretty much sealed the deal for me.
I obviously couldn’t see this in the moment, but I clearly went down that path for the wrong reasons. “Wrong”, meaning reasons that were not ultimately supportive for me. Going to medical school, and eventually into residency, was based on superficial reasoning and mostly tied to the ‘prestige’ factor. I was a high achiever and thought, ‘If I can get into medicine, I’ll feel better about myself.’
So you decided to go to medical school. What happened then?
Once I was in medical school, my first clinical rotation was on psych-neuro. Naturally with my passion for psychology, I thought I would eventually become a psychiatrist…but once I got to experience the realities of psychiatry in the current medical system, I quickly realized that was not the specialty for me.. The entire process felt very detached. We were there to evaluate and not really work with the patient. It felt incredibly paternalistic,condescending and not the sort of doctor patient relationship I was looking for.. Ultimately, I ended up choosing OB-GYN instead. Mainly because it was the specialty I hated the least.
A classic reason to choose your specialty. How was your initial experience in residency?
Well by the time I reached 4th year of medical school, I was already starting to have my doubts. For the first 3 years of medical school I put my head down and worked so hard to excel. On some level (mostly subconscious at that time), I thought if I scored really well on Step one and matched into my top choice residency program, I would feel better about myself. But, by the end of 3rd year, all my academic accomplishments started to feel empty. I was beginning to question whether I could really “achieve my way” to happiness and fulfillment.
Going into my 4th year, I made a New Years Resolution “Less med student, more human.” From there I made a concerted effort to ‘connect more to humanity’, and not to be all-consumed by medicine. I developed other interests outside of medicine, started practicing yoga, meditation, spent time in nature, all in an effort to feel less empty. So, all of that context to say there were definitely some second thoughts about my life path by the time I got to residency.
But I had invested so much time and energy in my training thus far, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye just yet. I wanted to give residency a proper try. I threw myself into the process, hoping that my disillusionment from medical school was just because I didn’t really have a clear role as a med student. Maybe once I was actually “being a doctor”, I would enjoy it. . During my first few rotations, I cried almost every day on my way home from work. But, I kept telling myself “It will be better once I have more experience and know what I’m doing. For months I lived in the false promises of the “it will be better when…..” cycle that is all too familiar to medical trainees. But, it didn’t get better, in fact as the sleep debt piled up, everything got worse. I had no time or energy for anything outside of ‘being a resident and eventually felt a massive sense of burnout.
OK, so not a great experience. What ultimately led to you wanting to quit?
In the middle of my 2nd year, I hit rock bottom. I was completely burnt out. I actually entertained the idea of quitting during my first rotation of 2nd year. After barely surviving my intern year, I decided my only hope for staying in clinical medicine was to leave the academic setting and do community based, private practice. I was able to explore this during my first rotation. I reached out to all of the top private practitioners in the area and arranged to meet/speak/work with them. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that these people did not seem happier, and in fact appeared to be even less inspired than those at academic hospitals. It was a disheartening discovery and ultimately made me realize, I could not stomach the idea of practicing clinical medicine.
When I voiced my doubts to my program direction, she suggested I take a leave of absence for the next rotation, which added up to 5 weeks. I needed time to gain clarity on my situation and understand if this was the correct path for me. Could I do something differently? Did I need to switch specialties or programs? Did I need to quit? I wanted to be intentional about my decision making process, so I made a series of rules for myself.
- I didn’t want to be influenced by other people
- I wanted to connect with myself and make an authentic decision using my own intuition and gut feeling
- I went back to my old habits at the end of medical school – yoga, meditation, journaling, spending time in nature
I wasn’t necessarily making the decision to leave, but I found that all of my reasons to stay just were not good enough.
By the end of the 5 weeks it was so clear to me, I did not want to finish residency. I ended up arranging a meeting with my chiefs and told them that I wanted to quit. When I officially turned in my resignation, I negotiated the ability to work for another 90 days. I actually found my program quite willing to work with me on this, despite my demands. I didn’t want to be in the OR anymore and only ended up working 4 ½ days per week, mostly doing administrative duties. This gave me a 3 month runway to figure out what I wanted to do next. I moved in with my cousins who lived in the area, saved money on rent and started taking up jobs like walking dogs. I had always considered being a travel blogger, so I purchased a course on the subject and started my blog.
What I really wanted was freedom and the ability to travel. The ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle was very attractive to me, but I also knew that I needed to find a way to make money in the interim. I applied, and was accepted into a program to teach English in South Korea. But I still wanted to pursue psychology in some manner, so I signed up for a life coaching certification program as well. This was all taking shape at the end of 2018, and then in February of 2019, I boarded a plane to South Korea to start my adventure.
Alright so a big change from residency. How was your time in South Korea?
The first thing I noticed was the sheer amount of time that I had to myself. I looked at my calendar and every single weekend was off, for the entire year. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how to fill my time. I slept 8 hours a day and it was wonderful. There were certainly some challenges to living abroad in South Korea, but I knew that I wanted to start building an online business in order to give myself that freedom and flexibility. There was going to be some component of writing/blogging as well as helping people using psychology/coaching.
By the end of the first year, I realized that I did not want to be a full time blogger, so I started to pursue coaching more seriously. For a while, I mostly talked with clients about their career, typically helping fellow high-achievers ‘find their purpose.’ My contract ended in February 2020, right as the COVID-19 outbreak started. Initially I was planning to backpack around SE Asia, but COVID had other plans for me, and I ended up staying in Vietnam during the first 8 months of the pandemic. I was making about $600/month coaching a few clients, and teaching English online to supplement the rest of my income. I strategically chose to live somewhere like Vietnam because the USD goes much further there. I was able to live very comfortably on about $1000-$1500/month. During the pandemic, I started to hear more and more from healthcare professionals, and in 2021 shifted fully to focusing on working with this client base. At the same time, I was publishing a blog post about once a week, but only a few about medicine. I gained some traction with a piece about why I left medicine and it took off from there. I am currently testing out a ‘homebase’ in Albania, but still very much adhering to the ‘digital nomad’ lifestyle.
Did you have any reservations about working in the healthcare space again?
Initially, yes, because I had left that world for a reason. But after a few years of being removed from it and doing some healing around my experiences in medicine, I was able to enter the world of healthcare again as a coach. My clients are from all areas of healthcare, not just residents or MDs. I work with nurses, PA’s, etc – anyone who does not find their work fulfilling and wants to find something they enjoy. I am not interested in working with someone to simply ‘tolerate’ their job. I find it depressing that we so often convince ourselves that it is ok to settle for something mediocre. I most enjoy working with people who want to create fulfilling careers that they are passionate about.
My program has three basic pillars, the Authentic Career Alignment.
- Self-Acceptance – loving yourself for exactly who you are
- Self-Discovery – finding out more about who you are
- Self-Empowerment – dealing with all the limiting beliefs, self-doubt, and fears that keep you from being your true self
My favorite part of the process is watching how my clients come back to life once they connect to themselves.
What would you say to those who are concerned about the stigma of quitting residency?
Fuck the stigma!! Why are we so judgemental of each other’s choices? I love that quote by Eleanor Roosvelt that says “People will judge you anyways so do in your heart what you feel is right:”
And, realistically, I know we still fear judgment anyways. We all want to belong and don’t want to make any moves that ostracize us from the herd. I get it. I grappled with that myself. When you go through medical training, your world becomes so small. I barely had friends outside of my little medical bubble, so the idea of giving up this holy grail of a profession and the sense of belonging that it gave me, was out of the question. So if you are struggling with that fear of being judged or stigmatized, broaden your social world. Become part of groups of people that don’t put so much social currency on “the white coat”. And remember, at the end of the day, making your decisions based on other people’s perceptions of you is a very unfulfilling way to live.
Thank you to Chelsea for sharing her story. You can find her at her website, https://coachchelsmd.com/ or through her podcast, Life After Medicine.
Chelsea’s is just one path for those that end up leaving residency, but we hope that this shows that the possibilities are endless. Your options are not just ‘Pharma’ or ‘Consulting.’ It is never too late to find what you are truly passionate about, and there are plenty of people available to help.