My Best-Laid Plans

Jeffrey K. Actor

I HAD MY SIGHTS SET on retiring at age 59. Not exactly FIRE—financial independence-retire early—but certainly a bit earlier than my peers, close friends and family. I wanted to seek new challenges after spending more than 25 years in academic research. Our financial plan was solid. My wife and I calculated we’d have more than enough retirement income.

But my plans were upended, first by the COVID-19 pandemic and then by two life-threatening health issues.

I’d spent three decades studying the immune system, with a specific focus on developing new ways to increase vaccine potency. The pandemic represented an opportunity to put all my theoretical knowledge to good use.

As a researcher, I was well positioned to lead a team seeking to develop enhanced and novel vaccines. As an educator, I had the opportunity to teach medical students about SARS-CoV-2 and introduce them to an entirely new class of therapeutics. How could I possibly retire? Needless to say, I put my retirement plans on hold and jumped into the scientific void.

I look back on the three additional working years not just with joy, but also with gratitude that I was able to contribute—at least in some very small way—toward helping the world work through the pandemic. I joined the scientific community on a common and exciting quest.

It wasn’t easy. The increased pressure to produce solid data in a short period of time took a toll on my health. Put it this way: There’s never a good time to have a heart attack, but that’s doubly true if we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Luckily, the care I received was top notch. I escaped with some embedded hardware and no permanent cardiac damage.

A year ago, with the pandemic in the rearview mirror, I returned to my earlier goal—embarking on the next phase of my life—and trimmed my workload to two days a week. It was scary to reduce pay and benefits by 60% in the face of volatile stock and bond markets. Indeed, to me, it was scarier than my heart attack. Still, I’d spent decades following a Boglehead-like approach to saving and investing, and felt financially ready to retire. My asset allocation and cash reserves gave me confidence that my plan was solid and allowed me to sleep at night.

My wife and I took the obligatory European trip, flying to Spain to view Gaudí architecture, and to enjoy sangria and espresso. We bought new hiking boots and made a small dent in one bucket list item: exploring new vistas in Texas State Parks. I was confident we were all set for a wonderful retirement.

Man plans. The deities laugh.

Seven months ago, I was diagnosed with a golf-ball-sized brain tumor. I’m grateful that the mass within my skull was discovered well before it led to permanent disability or death. Still, my world was turned upside down overnight. I made my living using my brain, and now my major “capital equipment” was in peril. It was ironic and tough to fathom.

From diagnosis to surgery was only two weeks—not a heck of a lot of time in the grand scheme of things. Two weeks is about the time it takes for newly planted radish seeds to sprout and lift their leaves toward the warming sunshine. Two weeks is half a moon change in the nighttime sky.

Two weeks is not enough time to get one’s financial affairs in order. That’s a long-term plan that takes years to develop and implement. Nonetheless, it was sufficient time to familiarize my wife with our investments and the financial firms we use, and to remind her of our overall goals in our investment policy statement. Since I do most of the bill paying, the two weeks were also enough time to give my wife a refresher course on those day-to-day financial activities.

There were other items to address over that two-week period. Advance medical directives. Medical power of attorney. Financial power of attorney. Update wills. Notarize aforementioned documents. Locate insurance policies. Confirm all accounts have updated beneficiary designations. We were fortunate that we’d addressed many of those items over the prior two years. Still, it was stressful double-checking all of life’s important documents.

We usually gift money to our twins during the first quarter of each year. We accelerated that move, so it happened immediately, rather than waiting until after the surgery. It’s not a heck of a lot of money. But we like how it helps them today, rather than receiving it years later as an inheritance.

The surgery was deemed a success. Most of the tumor was removed, and it was characterized as benign. A short course of radiation therapy followed, and I’ve since made a near-complete recovery. That said, the path post-surgery was challenging. I’m grateful for the community of friends and family that supported my reclamation of my body and mental functioning. My optimistic outlook on life hasn’t changed, though I readily admit my vision of how my next decade will unfold has.

I spent a lifetime planning for a happy financial ending, never considering that my health might derail those plans. Today, I’d urge others to follow their dreams as best they can while they can. This doesn’t necessarily mean retiring early. Rather, try to enjoy life along the way, so you don’t end up with regrets for having worked so hard for so long. During my career, I looked forward to work every day. The excitement of scientific discovery made me who I am. I truly have no regrets.

But I also have a long list of adventures and challenges I’d still like to complete—and I’m altering my plans to take advantage of the gift of additional time that I’ve been given.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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