Interview with Dr. Chelsea Turgeon – 343

In today's episode, Dr. Chelsea Turgeon describes her unique career as a coach and digital nomad. This episode is an excerpt from Chelsea's popular lecture from the 2023 Nonclinical Career Summit hosted by John Jurica and Tom Davis.

The narrative explores the internal conflicts, moments of self-discovery, and the decision to step off the conventional path. The blog provides a nuanced view of the highs and lows of the digital nomad experience, dispelling myths while offering practical advice.

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Dr. Debra Blaine is a physician like many of you, and her greatest challenge was fear. The whole concept of leaving clinical medicine was terrifying. But she is so much happier now as a professional writer and a coach. According to Debra, “It’s like someone turned the oxygen back on.”

If fear is part of your struggle, too, she would like to help you push through those emotional barriers to go after the life you really want. Click this link to schedule a free chat.

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Dr. Chelsea Turgeon's Journey

Dr. Turgeon recounts the challenges she faced during her medical education, exploring the mismatch between her interests and the demands of hospital-based rotations. As she grappled with the internal conflict of wanting more freedom, she took a leave of absence to focus on her next steps.

Her journey took an unexpected turn as she resigned from residency, eventually finding herself teaching English in South Korea.

Embracing the Digital Nomad Lifestyle

Chelsea shares her experiences with the digital nomad lifestyle, both the invigorating aspects and the challenges. She emphasizes the importance of intentional routines to maintain stability despite the transient nature of her lifestyle.

She shares her observations on nurturing relationships while traveling. And she provides insights into earning an income remotely, with examples of healthcare professionals thriving in unconventional roles from telehealth to health tech consultancy.

Navigating the Road to Financial Freedom and Fulfillment

Dr. Turgeon provides valuable insights into financial strategies for sustaining a digital nomad lifestyle. She discusses fellow healthcare professionals who have successfully transitioned into remote roles, such as speech-language pathologists conducting virtual patient sessions and veterinarians specializing in remote image analysis. Additionally, she explores alternative career paths demonstrating that lucrative remote opportunities exist outside the traditional medical sphere.


Dr. Turgeon recounts her transformative path, from teaching English in South Korea to embracing the life of a Digital Nomad, building her own successful business, and achieving a six-figure income across 20 different countries. Her presentation concludes with insights into how she and others discovered meaningful work, creating a life that is both fascinating and deeply fulfilling.

NOTE: Look below for a transcript of today's episode. 

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Transcription PNC Podcast Episode 343

The Extraordinary Life of the Physician Digital Nomad

- Presentation by Dr. Chelsea Turgeon

John: This is Dr. Chelsea Turgeon. Chelsea, is it true that you're coming to us from Bulgaria today?

Dr. Chelsea Turgeon: It is true.

John: Oh, my gosh. Well, the wonders of technology make this all possible, so I'm going to be really interested in hearing what you have to say. And so with that, I'll just turn it over to you for the next 30 minutes or so.

Dr. Chelsea Turgeon: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me. I'm so happy to be here. I'm going to just go through and talk about my story and how it is that I got to be having this conversation with you guys from Sophia, Bulgaria, where I have been learning to ski for the past few weeks, which is something I'm totally new at. I literally had never put those on my feet before. And just a quick doctor reference that people will get. When I first put the skis on and started to ski, it literally felt like laparoscopic surgery with my feet. Because in laparoscopic surgery the instruments are these extensions of your hands that are really clumsy and it's hard to figure out how to navigate them. And you have to figure out if you move it this way, it goes up, and if you move it this way, it goes down. And it literally felt like having laparoscopic instruments on my feet until I learned how to navigate it better. That's just something I thought that I told some of my surgeon clients that and they were like, "Yeah, we totally appreciate that."

My story. I initially started out, I grew up in Alabama, born and raised there. I always have been interested in psychology. I was somebody who was quite a nerd growing up. I would have my parents drop me off at Barnes & Noble and I would say I was going to study. And I would study, but then I would go to the self-help aisle and just browse the aisles, looking at all of the books on happiness and how to deal with rejection and overcoming depression. And I was just so interested in that whole world. I was interested in how the mind work, how to become happier, how to live better. And that was an interest that I always took with me. In college I majored in psychology and I was trying to decide my career path going forward.

And I did what most people do when they're trying to figure out their career path, which is I pulled the audience. I pulled anyone and everyone around me, which is how a lot of us are taught to approach our careers, is looking outside of us for approval, for advice, for other people's ideas of what we should do with our own lives.

I would tell people, "Okay, I'm majoring in psychology. I think I'm either going to be pre-med and become a psychiatrist, or go to grad school and become a clinical psychologist." And every time I presented those options to people, I would get met with this insane amount of validation around the idea of going to med school, becoming a doctor. "Oh, you must be so smart. What a noble profession." I just slowly started to lean towards that as my career path.

I didn't totally know this at the time, but I was very much craving this external validation and basing a lot of my career decisions from this place of what is going to impress other people and what is going to make me feel important and significant. And so, I was making my career decisions from that place, which is so common. A lot of people do that. I wasn't really going into myself and asking, "What would I really love to be doing?" And I also think from a young age, we're taught to look at what do college admissions want to see on their application? What kind of test scores are you supposed to have? What sort of extra curriculars are you supposed to have? We're just used to basing everything we do on these external metrics that other people are putting on us and then we conform to those metrics.

And so, that's what I was doing and that's what I did for years. I went through medical school. I actually didn't mind my first two years. I do really like learning and studying and I liked that there was a lot more kind of location independence in med school actually. We didn't have to go to classes. We only had to go to 20% or maybe 50%. We had this small percentage where we actually had to be in class. We could actually do a lot of it on our own time, watch the recordings of classes.

I actually spent a lot of time in cafes and being on my own schedule. Like I could go to the gym in the mornings and I only had to be present for a few things. And I actually did really enjoy that flexibility. That was in first and second year. And so, I think having that sort of lifestyle was enough for me at that point to get through the hard parts of the rigorous curriculum, the long hours of studying and all of that.

But then I got to third and fourth year, and the way my med school was structured third and fourth year are very hospital based. You're on rotations, you have a set schedule. You're there for very long hours, 12 hours at a time in the hospital sometimes. They expect you to work weekends even as medical students.

And so, that was the first time I really started to feel this sense of rigidity and like I'm being boxed in. And I couldn't wait until I got off every day. Every day, as soon as my attending said I could go home, I would just feel this huge weight off my shoulders, this relief, just excessively happy to be leaving. And I was starting to question it at that point, "Do I want to be working in a job where all I'm doing is looking forward to the moment I can leave every day?" And there were things I liked about interacting with the patients, but I didn't really love the hospital setting as a whole. I had a hard time with the hours. I require so much sleep. I sleep eight hours a night at least. And then I take a nap during the day. And so, just having that sleep deprivation, I know it's challenging for so many people, but I was really struggling with not getting enough sleep, with just the rigidity of the schedule.

And I started to realize I'm not really that interested in all of the evidence-based medicine and all of the science and the studies and the research. Going and having to learn about the research and the evidence just felt like such a difficult thing to do. It was something I didn't want to learn about. What I was more interested in were things like motivational interviewing to help patients with smoking cessation. I was much more interested in the psychological aspect and the behavioral change. But again, these are things I noticed after the fact and not things that I was paying attention to as much at the time.

I kept going on, I carried on through, I went to residency. I decided to do OB-GYN residency and I made it through my first year. And after the first year, I was really having these big doubts around if medicine is the right career path for me. I was able to push off the nagging thought for a while. I had this thought, "Maybe medicine is not right for me." I was starting to have all these other ideas of what I wanted to do. I started to listen to podcasts about people who are traveling the world and making money online. And I was like, "Wait, this is a thing."

I learned about the world of coaching. My sister actually introduced me to the world of coaching. She got a life coach. And when I was making the transition from med school to residency, I was feeling a lot of anxiety, a lot of imposter syndrome, a lot of just fear, uncertainty. I felt like I was on this conveyor belt that was going and it was like there was no exit of the conveyor belt and I was just stuck on it. And I was leaning back and it was just moving forward. And I was going into this factory, or into this whatever, that's going to crush me. That's how I was feeling as I was going into residency. And I was like, "I think I need some help, but I don't know if it's therapy."

My sister referred me to her life coach and I started working with a coach myself and remember feeling so jealous of her. Because at one point she was emailing me from Rome and I was like, "Wait, you're in Rome and you're working and you're just traveling there for fun." And so, all these little moments of me sort of noticing, this is one thing I tell my clients all the time, is to pay attention to your jealousy. Because while we experience it as an uncomfortable emotion, it is actually a very powerful indication of what we want. It doesn't always mean we want the exact thing that we're jealous of, but within that we can dig in and say, "What does this mean about what I want?"

And for this, I was like, "I think this means that I want more freedom. I love the idea of being able to travel. It feels expansive." And so, all of this is happening as I'm starting residency. And I was like, well, I'm just going to try residency anyways. I'm going to give it a proper try. I'm going to see if the reason I didn't like being in the hospital in the first place was because as a med student, you don't really have many responsibilities. You're just kind of there shadowing and you don't really know where you fit in.

And I was like, "Maybe I just feel awkward and I feel like I don't know what to do. And so, maybe when it's my actual job and I have a role, I'll feel useful, I'll feel helpful." You just really give it a try and see if it's truly that I don't like medicine or if I just don't like this awkward role of med student. I did my first year of residency and it was pretty clear to me by the end that this was not something I wanted to do. However, I kept meeting with my program director to try to tell her, "I don't like this. I think I want to leave medicine." And they kept convincing me, "Just try this next rotation. Just try this next thing." And so, I did these two rotations in a row that just kind of broke me in a sense. Because if you're already on the fence about something, your heart's not fully in it at that point anymore. And then you go through this rigorous schedule and hours. I did OB nights rotation, which is I did seven emergency C-sections in one 24 hour shift at one point. You're just going and going and it's really rigorous. And then I did gyn onc. There's some really sick patients on gyn onc and it's pretty emotionally devastating. That was a really hard rotation to be on as well.

And by the end of that rotation, I was just fried. My program director, we met because she knew I was already on the fence and already struggling. We met and she suggested I take a five week leave of absence from the hospital. And so, I took five weeks off, was able to catch up on sleep finally, journal a lot, connect with my intuition. I went on a camper van road trip around Utah. And during that whole time, what really came to me is I just want to be out in the world. And it didn't make sense. There wasn't a super logical plan around this, but I just had this feeling, this connection from my intuition that was just telling me I just want to be out in the world. I want to be outside, I want to travel. And I didn't have a great idea of what that was going to look like, but I had a very clear sense of knowing that I didn't want to go back. And so, I made the decision that I was going to leave residency and I was going to give this traveling thing a try.

And also I just want to share I was not a traveler before this. I wasn't the friend who took the summers off and went to Europe. I had never really traveled. I went to Nicaragua once for a week on a medical service learning trip in undergrad, but I wasn't a big traveler. And so, it was very strange that I was having this draw to travel the world. And so, I decided to follow it and I turned in my resignation letter and decided to get a job teaching English in South Korea, which sounds a little bit weird, why would I do that?

The way that it kind of came to me was I wanted to travel. I already made that clear. I also wanted a source of income while traveling. I'm a resident, I wasn't stuck in the savings. I didn't really have a lot of leeway where I could just take a sabbatical or anything. I needed to be able to make money. I wanted to travel.

And so, I came upon the concept that you can get this online certification and start teaching English in abroad. And there's a very high need in Asian countries, but you can also do that in Spain and other European places, Latin America, anywhere. I got this online certification, I got a job teaching English in South Korea. I don't know why South Korea to be honest. I don't know if I just wanted to get as far away as possible, but that's just sort of what ended up happening. And I spent a year there teaching English.

And during the time I also went to basically Google Academy or Podcast Academy. I listened to every single podcast I could about building an online business, learning about marketing and strategy, SEO, websites, blogging, all of that. And I initially thought I was going to be a travel blogger. I made my first website and I called it the and I was like "I'm going to become a travel blogger. I'm going to build a six figure business travel blogging, and that's just what I'm going to do and it's going to take some time to build up the income. So, in the meantime I'm going to teach English." It just felt like, "This is it, this is the plan."

But I realized pretty quickly that I didn't really like writing about travel. I love writing itself, I love traveling. I don't like them sort of being intertwined. I really liked writing about my journey and personal growth and spirituality and so then the idea of life coaching sort of came back into my life. I just had this email that popped into my inbox that was like, "Do this free 30 day life coaching bootcamp and then see if you want to become a coach." And so, I signed up for that. I ended up doing a yearlong life coaching certification program.

I decided to shift from travel blogging more into life coaching and started doing that as my business. After a year of teaching English, I made $2,000 the first year in my business. I was teaching full-time, had the full-time job and I was charging people $60 a session, super casual.

But it was a start. I was getting started. And so, I made $2,000 that first year and then decided I wanted to be fully location independent. And so, I started teaching English online, and was able to make $24 an hour doing that, which was not terrible. I was living in Vietnam at the time. I decided to go to Vietnam. This is when the pandemic happened. I ended up getting stuck in Vietnam during the pandemic and was teaching English online and also starting my coaching business. And so, from there, transitioning from doing these online side gigs and coaching part-time to making coaching my full-time source of income.

And as I've been doing that, I just celebrated my four year travel bursary as I've been traveling the world. I've lived and worked in 24 different countries on five different continents. And I have now successfully built a six figure coaching business where that is my full-time thing and I'm able to really support myself and not just in the backpacker way, where I'm really struggling and staying in hostels, which is where I was initially. And I love that phase of my journey. It was so special to me and I'm really glad I had that time. And now I'm able to really focus more on growing a full business and supporting people in a bigger way, and I get to do all of that while traveling the world.

Let's talk about what does that actually look like? Because that's a big question that I get asked from people is, what does it look like to be a digital nomad? It does seem really glamorous and there are so many good parts of it there. Overall, it's a lifestyle that I love and I wouldn't trade it. However, I think it is important to talk about some of the realities of it because it's easy to look on Instagram at somebody living this lifestyle and think it's all just sunset photos and hikes and all these glamorous things. But there can be difficult parts of travel.

And I don't say any of this to complain. I say this because I know that can be annoying. Like, "Oh, what a sad life that you have. You have to deal with traveling and all of these things." I totally understand that it's such a privileged lifestyle and I'm so grateful for it.

And I think it's important to just be super honest and clear about what it actually entails because it can take a toll on your mental health if you're not being super careful about, because it can be disorienting. You're flying all over the world, you're changing locations all of the time. Really having to be intentional about the routines that you do to ground yourself is so important because there's times where I was in five different countries in two weeks and trying to run a business at the same time. And that is really hard.

And so, being a digital nomad, it's different. You're not traveling. You're not a backpacker, you're not on vacation. Having to figure out how you balance your work and then your self-care, the things you need to do to just maintain your sanity. And then also the fun stuff, the sight-seeing and the tours, there's all of that too. There can be a lot of pressure and I think it just really comes internally, but when I'm in a location, I'll feel pressure of, "Oh, I need to go to this museum and see this site and do this thing and check all these things off." But sometimes I just want to lay in bed and watch Netflix because when you're traveling long term, as I have been, I've been traveling for four years now, you're not always going to want to see things in the same way. You're not going to want to do the same things.

Now as I'm planning my travels, I don't really look at a list of top 10 things to do in this destination because you just get a little bit burnt out and jaded from going to the newest waterfalls and seeing all the churches and the mosques. I know all of this can sound very privileged to say these things but what I'm trying to get at is it's important to really, again, not fall into this external pressure of, "I'm in this location, this is what I should be doing." But really just checking in with yourself and seeing, "What do I want to be doing here? What is going to be nurturing for me?" And giving yourself time to just live your normal life and be a person and know that it doesn't always have to be adventure and travel all the time.

Actually, just to share a little bit more about that for me personally, next week I'm actually sort of moving to Albania. And I say "moving" loosely because I have a suitcase. It's not really moving anything except for myself. But I'm really looking forward to doing several months and potentially even getting a yearlong lease in Albania and having some heads downtime, having a bit of a home base and having more stability because there is that aspect of all the transient, all the variety that it is important to just check in with yourself as you're doing this and set up a routine that works for you.

Some people, we call them slowmads, they travel slower. They go for three months, six months in a location. But I have not been slowmading at all. I've been fast, fast, fast. I've been doing one month in each country and just going around. It's been great and it's what I needed. But yeah, part of that is really just planning out and checking in with what works for you.

Those would be I would say the main cons that I can think of. You're designing your whole life. And so, there's no 09:00 to 05:00 structure. There's nothing set up externally. You really have to do what you think is going to be best for you. The pros are endless. It's such a satisfying, fulfilling lifestyle.

I'm open to being wrong about this. Maybe one day I'll change my mind. As of right now, as I look at my future, I don't think I'll ever be somebody who permanently lives in one location. I imagine myself having multiple home bases around the world because it's a very expansive lifestyle. To me it feels like I'm living to the fullest in the biggest way. I'm seeing the world, I'm doing things that people only dream of doing. I don't even have a bucket list because the moment I want to do something, I can just go do it. The list doesn't build up, I just get to go do the things that I want to do. And so, there is so much freedom, there is so much expansion.

I've just met so many people and you grow and you change and there's so many experiences I've had that wouldn't have been possible if I was still in a hospital tied to a mortgage and having to commute to work every day and just sort of living in this structured routine. It's really shaken me up in a lot of ways. I've grown, I've learned a lot of things about myself. I've changed a lot of patterns.

Some people can digital nomad within the US and that's great too. But for me, being outside of the US has really introduced me to other ways of living and shown me a lot of the conditioning that can happen in the US and allowed me to just step outside of the box and really start to formulate my own ideas about things, which I don't know if that level of independent thinking would've been as possible if I was surrounded by people who were all thinking the exact same way, which can happen in the states more often. My mind is expanding, my heart is expanding in a big way. It's just a very expansive lifestyle.

I would say another con that is just coming to me as well is relationships. Community, romantic relationships, friendships, all of those things are very possible as a digital nomad. There's lots of hubs around the world of big digital nomad communities. And there's a lot of transient nature within all of those. And so, when it comes to cultivating community and meaningful relationships, there has to be a high level of intentionality around that. For a while I was just a free wheel and solo traveler and then I realized, "I need friends. This is something I really need." The cool thing about being a digital nomad though is many people that you meet and who are living a similar lifestyle, they also really need friends. So, they're really open.

In the US I think we can get into some of these really established patterns of no new friends because we have my group, it's kind of a closed situation. As you travel, I meet a lot of people and they're all very open to connecting and you're able to make these deeper connections because everybody that you meet has a leaving home story too. So, that's another cool thing. Every time you meet someone and they're not from around here and they're just traveling the world, it's like, "What got you out here?" That's always really cool because you can go deep pretty quickly. Because people don't just leave everything they know and start traveling the world for no reason. There's usually a deep motivator or some sort of wake up moment they had. That's really powerful to connect with people like that and meeting people from all over the world too. I can recognize the subtleties of different South African city accents because I've just met so many people from so many places. And so, that's a cool thing too.

I think one thing a lot of people want to know is, "How do you make money? How do you support yourself while doing this?" I think a lot of people, especially within medicine, they worry like "I don't have any skill sets that are transferrable to this. I don't know how I can make money remotely doing healthcare." I just want to talk through some of the other healthcare professionals I've met out here, because there's other ones out here and that's so fun.

What I want to share is there's ways to make money potentially using already the skills that you have as a healthcare professional or you can do what I did and come up with a totally different way to make money. I'll just talk through some of the main roles and jobs that I see people doing so that you guys can have some ideas of where to start.

As I've been traveling, I've met a speech language pathologist who was actually an independent contractor and she was seeing her patients virtually. She was doing patient work, was seeing patients virtually and billing. She said she's in a gray area and isn't sure if it's 100% kosher, but she has been doing this as an independent contractor working with patients in the California area. And she took it on the road and is doing it virtually.

I've met a veterinarian. She does consultations, she looks at radiology images and she reads the images and that's her full-time job. You walk by her computer and she's just looking at images of animal insides all day. And so, she's doing that. She's able to take that skill working for a company that just reads the images and is makes her living that way.

I've met several nurses and I don't remember exactly what they were doing, but some sort of patient care role that they were able to do remotely as well. And then I have a friend right now who I've actually been traveling with and she's not medical, but she works at a health tech company called Cerebral. And within that, she's said they have a whole clinical team full of people who are clinicians who consult on the operations and consult on different aspects and they're all remote as well. And so, there's lots of opportunities within health tech, doing either clinical things like telehealth or even just working on the consultant side.

So, that's some of the medical areas that I've seen. Obviously there's another route like I did. I just created my own business. There's a lot you can do in the online space, and especially like physicians, other clinicians, having something like a coaching business or a consulting business and just having any sort of face-to-face interactions with people, I just want to see more physicians making their own businesses and being able to help people on their own terms because they're just such bright, incredible people. And having that ability to just help people in the way you want to, is really powerful. I think it's a really natural transition for physicians to become coaches if that's something they're interested in. And there's a lot of resources to that. Obviously, for me, it was a longer trajectory. I wasn't able to support myself with that right away, but totally worth it.

Other potential income sources that you could quickly learn and master. There's ways to do things like coding bootcamps, which you can do. I just want to go into things that are good ways to make good money that don't require you going all the way back to school. You could do a six month coding bootcamp if you're somebody who's into computers and or into coding in that way. And you can get a six figure job pretty much right out of that six month coding bootcamp. And the bootcamps are a couple thousand dollars. But if that is something that you're interested in doing, it's a really reasonable way to get yourself into a remote position.

Another thing that's similar to that is UX/UI, which is user experience, user interface. It's a little bit like website design, but you're consulting, you don't have to know the coding behind it, but you create what apps look like. When you look at an app and you see what it looks like, the appearance, all the images and the way that it's all laid out, that's UX/UI. That's another thing where you can do a short bootcamp and get a six-figure job pretty quickly after that. I have another friend who's doing that. Those are just some ideas.

I think as we're in medicine, we get this tunnel vision and we think that in order to have these high salaries, we're going to have to go all the way back to school again. If we wanted to change and to do something totally different, we think we'd have to go all the way back to school and it'd be this rigorous process. But I wanted to share with you some of the people I've met who are doing things that they didn't actually go to school for and they're able to find a way to make good income as they're traveling as well.

And that's just the start. I think there's a whole Facebook group for remote careers for physicians. Especially with after the pandemic and the way telehealth has blown up now, there's so many ways to support yourself financially through the internet. It's actually really incredible.


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