When Jean Tsigonis leaves Tanana Valley Clinic after nearly 38 years of working as a family physician, she doesn’t think of it as retiring. She is just repurposing.
“This has been my ideal job,” said the lifelong Fairbanks resident. “I want to leave it while I’m still loving it.”
A family practice physician, Tsigonis grew up in Fairbanks, and attended schools here, including Lathrop High School. She thought maybe she’d like to be a veterinarian, then changed that goal to physical therapy. She wound up graduating from Stanford University with a degree in microbiology. She applied to medical school, enrolling as a student in the first year-round WWAMI program at the University of Washington.
WWAMI is a medical school program that allows students to train in their home states, through collaboration with the University of Washington School of Medicine and University of Alaska.
All those years ago, she and her classmates pondered what medical specialties they might pursue.
“I don’t know,” she recalled thinking, “but ‘I’m sure I don’t want to be a psychiatrist.’”
“Of course 30% of our practice is psychiatry.” She laughed. “I love every aspect of medicine. Every rotation I loved. But the only one where you can do everything in is family practice.”
As her schooling continued, she accepted a position at Central Maine Family Practice Residency, which later became Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency, but was able to come home to Fairbanks to complete some of her medical electives. During one of those visits, she accepted an unexpected job offer and sealed the deal with a handshake.
She loaded up her old Datsun and headed back to Alaska, from Maine. She has been here ever since, providing medical services for friends and family and many new friends.
“I just can’t describe it,” Tsigonis said. “I am leaving at a high point. I was Doctor of the Year last year. I’m chairman of the Physician Wellness Program and that is my new passion.”
After turning 60, Tsigonis went back to school and earned a master’s degree in public health.
“At some point, I thought individual practice would lose its pizzazz, and at some point, I want to take care of the greater good,” she said.
Plus, new positions were added to the hospital called “hospitalists.” These are people whose sole job is to take care of patients who are hospitalized. Physicians still can visit patients, but their care is the prime responsibility of hospitalists.
Tsigonis needed a new passion to get through that change. So it made sense to go back to college. She chose the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“My thesis was ‘Physician Burnout: Did We Have It?” I proved we had it,” Tsigonis said.
College today is totally different from the last time she attended.
“I hadn’t written a paper in 40 years,” she said. “It was extremely difficult for me, as far as anxiety.”
Online classes were challenging because they were so depersonalized.
“I would turn stuff in, and I didn’t know if they could feel my passion for the subject,” Tsigonis said.
As for the math? Tsigonis was used to using a slide rule, not a calculator.
Now, with her new degree in hand, Tsigonis wants to put what she has learned into action and has already produced a PowerPoint of solutions for physician burnout, which she considers a public health problem.
Other than that, she has no specific plans for the next stage of her life. She figures it will just become obvious as the days go by.
“My son, my daughter and my daughter-in-law are all in medicine, so I feel like I’ve passed a baton,” Tsigonis said. “I have five kids, they’re all gainfully employed. It’s a good time to retire.”
Her family is more excited than she is, she said. She plans to spend lots of time with her four grandchildren.
“Instead of fitting them into my schedule, they’ll be my schedule,” Tsigonis said.
Her future “repurposing” will likely include community service work to foreign lands and maybe filling in for local physicians. Her license remains current, she said. She hopes to help mentor new physicians.
One thing is for sure, she won’t be binge watching any television shows. She got rid of the family television set about 10 years ago.
She has already signed up to teach a class at OLLI and to take a photography class.
For her retirement party, she has invited all of her patients to the event from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at Birch Hill Recreation Area.
She wanted a chance to tell them what they mean to her.
“I have several four-generation families, and they’re going to hear what I have to say,” Tsigonis said.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at email@example.com. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter:@FDNMKris.