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Member Spotlight: Donna Michelson

Updated: May 8

Meet Donna, a Hively member in the Boston area. After retiring from Brigham and Women’s Hospital on December 31, 2022, Donna continues to embody her role as a Physician by running a Walk-with-a-Doc chapter in Brookline, MA today. We spoke to Donna about what it means to “become the boss of your own bones,” the importance of activation energy, and how Hively has helped expedite her discovery process in retirement.

Hi Donna! Good to see you again. Please tell me a little bit more about your career prior to retirement.

Hi Jenn, thank you for having me! I’m a cardiologist/internist who practiced for both Massachusetts General hospital and Brigham and Women’s hospital over the past four decades.

I don’t think we ever spoke about how you became a Physician- how and when did you know that you wanted to be a Physician?

Well, actually medicine was the one career that I thought I didn’t want to do! In college, I chose a non-science path and became an English major with a minor in psychology. After graduating from Cornell University, I pursued a master’s degree in counseling and consulting psychology at Harvard. During my internship at Children’s Hospital during my master’s program, I was intent on pursuing a doctorate in counseling psychology, but my advisor warned me about the diminishing job opportunities for psychologists. She recommended that I consider medical school instead. The turning point came when I retook biology as I began my pre-med coursework taught by Professor E.O. Wilson. I completely fell in love with biology. It was a pivotal moment for me- when I realized I had been following societal stereotypes for women by thinking that medicine wasn’t a career choice for me. I reevaluated this, opened my mind to it, and after doing my required years of premedical studies, I went to Boston University School of Medicine. The journey to becoming a cardiologist/internist was filled with countless years of difficult training, but I truly cherish where it led me. And I have since loved this career- one where it has been a privilege and honor to be a part of the lives of my patients. I really define being a physician as a life decision - part of who I am and continue to be.

I define retirement as stopping one’s prior job as defined by the hours and sessions that I was formally doing.

I love this story! It’s so empowering. So you’ve been retired for approximately 7 months now how would you define retirement for yourself?

Yes, I retired 7 months ago - happily! I define retirement as stopping one’s prior job as defined by the hours and sessions that I was formally doing. Yet for me, I consider being a physician a part of my persona that I will always carry with me. So for me, it has been more about how I can redesign and channel being a physician in different ways. I especially loved the clinical interaction with patients, families, and the opportunity to hear life stories! My challenge was how do I take these aspects of what I loved in my job and work it into my retirement.

Have you figured this out? How did you work it into your retirement?

Yes! I thought about my career knowledge base and how I could leverage what I believed in and have done for my practicing years into my life now. I created a Walk with a Doc chapter, a local chapter of a non-profit organization that helps people start walking in friendly walking communities guided by the medical knowledge of the “doc.” This was a wonderful thing for me. It helped me find purpose in my new retirement life as much as I hope it has been helping others. It enabled me to continue sharing good medical advice to help people to pursue healthy aging and be in a group that interacts with others, building community. It checked off a lot of the boxes for me in terms of how I could take the exam room experience and move it into another venue so that I could continue to use my experience as a physician to help and motivate people.

And I know it's going well! I heard you’ve already had over 70 walkers since launching your chapter in June. Taking a step back, when did you first consider retirement? Why, and when did you turn that idea into a decision to do it?

Well, actually there was no exact date. The decision to retire was in my head for a long time. I had been working very long hours - especially post pandemic- and it started taking me much longer to recover my energy each week. I turned into the decision gradually, and when I felt comfortable with all the pieces in place, I took the plunge and announced my retirement!

What were the major steps you took from deciding to retire to developing a plan to do so?

I put together a checklist, and I highly advise anyone considering retirement do this as well in whatever form makes most sense for them. It’s a way of thinking through all the necessary steps to go from working to being retired.

  • Part 1 consisted of the “Things I Have To do” such as setting up the financial piece and signing up for medical insurance, dental insurance, etc.

  • Part 2 entailed the “Things that I Need To do”, such as organizing my home, giving away books and clothes, getting to the repairs that I had put off, etc. Those were the things that I just didn’t have the time to do while working.

  • Part 3 consisted of the “Things I Want to To do.” What surprised me was how many things I found that I wanted to do - a page and a half single-spaced! I had never expected I had so many things that I wanted to learn, do, and discover but just didn’t have the time/energy to do so during my working life.

I used this checklist as my sounding board and kept going back to it to check things off. Right now I’m mostly in the “Want To Do” list phase, especially around meeting new people, friends, and spending time with those in my community.

Despite having a list and being prepared, what were the things that didn’t go so well? And what went well?

Taking the steps to set up your retirement can seem overwhelming at times. The worst part was navigating the nightmare of signing up for Medicare. It's going to take time, angst, and too many phone calls. Even I, as a physician, had trouble understanding how Medicare is set up and the multiple challenging steps required. It’s great that you are bringing a Medicare expert for your next expert discussion! We really need experts who can simplify and explain the complicated process.

Working through my checklist and doing financial planning went well. What also went well was going through the mindset change to become comfortable with retirement- Hively was pivotal for helping with this.

It’s so great to hear that! What was helpful for your mindset change?

Accepting that the finding purpose and meaning again won’t happen on day 1 of retirement. That it would take time to get there, but it's something amazing - being the boss of my own bones (to quote my brother).

That’s a very appropriate way of describing retirement coming from a doctor! And right, it's important being aware that it's a big life change, and so you should cut yourself some slack.

Exactly, people can’t expect they will know what retirement is like on day 1-3. I’ve come to the point of trusting myself that there are things I want to do and learn, but it will take time to network and discover them. Like every other chapter of my life, good things take prep time. It took me years to become a physician. It’s going to also take time to make my retirement the way I want it to be. But I was pleasantly surprised that I’ve adjusted happily in just 7 months! I think it would've taken me much longer without Hively - without the support, ideas, and encouragement that you and other members have given. I think being a part of Hively has definitely accelerated my timeline to get to this point.

What is something you’d like to share with those who are transitioning into retirement?

I was surprised to find that retirement is not as scary as was the time leading up to it! I believe that the thought of retirement invokes more anxiety and fear in many - especially in career paths where there are no clear “templates” for how to retire. You realize that days have a different tempo and a different pace in retirement, and it's a journey to become comfortable with this new tempo. You may not be as productive as when working, but the joy is that you can now create your own tempo and shape your days that way you want to. It could be distressing at first for people who are not sure how to fill it with things that bring them meaning and purpose. However, you are now in control of your life, and the key is in finding what you really want to do with this different new life.

Have you found your tempo?

As a physician, my work life was scheduled every 15 to 30 minutes. I didn’t have any ability to expand the scope of my life to allow for things I wanted to do that took more time. I took the frenetic pace that I was living and slowed it down to a much healthier and happier level. There’s a quote from a recent article about longevity from The National Geographic that speaks to this: “slow down, stay healthy, and spend time with people that matter.” A great motto. What I’ve also found helpful in finding my tempo is uncovering activation energy. Just like it takes a little activation energy to get the ball to the top of the hill, once you’re past that incline the ball rolls more effortlessly along the remaining path. If you can identify which activities bring you joy, you’ll start figuring out what you want to do and with whom you want to do it.

What I’ve also found helpful in finding my tempo is uncovering activation energy.

You touched upon this a couple times - how has joining Hively benefited you?

Hively has helped me so much along the way - it has expedited the discovery process of what I needed to learn and do to make my retirement a more positive time. I'm very grateful that my retirement coincided with finding Hively. Without Hively, it definitely would’ve been a slower trajectory of discovery for me- to find and to make the things happen in my life that I needed to do, to get that activation energy that powers the retirement life changes. Hively makes it easy to think about all the things that you could do and be part of. One’s time doesn’t have to be empty. And in the meantime you can make new friends! I’ve met so many wonderful people with whom I’ve become friends through Hively - and many show up to my Walk with a doc events - so nice to see how the Hively community supports each other!

Aw, thank you Donna! It’s moments like these that help us keep going!

Absolutely true, Jenn! Hively encouraged me to deeply think about what I wanted to do and how to put these life changes into action. I’m grateful - thank you!

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Kelly Normand
Kelly Normand
Dec 13, 2023

So much wisdom! I agree that the time leading up to retirement is more scary than adjusting to the freedom of retirement.


Thank you for sharing Donna! This quote is the reminder I needed today! "Slow down, stay healthy, and spend time with people that matter."

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