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Dr. Michael Teuton / Photo by Mark Kennedy

Midlife career changes have become a 21st-century cliche.

But Dr. Michael Teuton's midlife career shift wasn't just a detour, it was an abrupt U-turn.

Teuton, 46, was a successful businessman who decided in his 30s to change lanes and go to medical school. There was just one problem: He had never even been to college.

Before his career shift, Teuton, now a Chattanooga physician, was a construction company owner, restaurateur and sporting goods store owner living with his family in Charleston, South Carolina.

In the back of his mind was a nagging feeling that he was miscast as a businessman. Although his ventures were profitable, he could never shake a childhood impulse to become a doctor.

He remembered thinking, "Yeah, [business is] good, but is this really it? Is this what life's about?"

Teuton said he was inspired by the book "The Purpose Driven Life" by Christian minister and author Rick Warren to re-evaluate his career. The book tells people to look for a guiding light, or purpose, in their lives, and cautions them that " being successful and fulfilling your life's purpose are not at all the same thing."

As a child, Teuton had multiple surgeries at Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa, Florida, where doctors lengthened one of his legs by more than four inches due to a condition called "leg length discrepancy." He said he grew up imagining himself as a bone surgeon, but nobody showed him a path of plausibility to that career after high school.

"I went to a school with 4,000 people," he explained. "I got lost in the mix."

Then, one day in his 30s, he mentioned to his second wife, Lori, that he might want to switch careers and go to medical school. He said she gently reminded him, "You can't just go to medical school, you have to go to college first."

After high school in Panama City, Florida, Teuton had immediately gone to work because that was his family's culture, he said. He later learned that his near-perfect SAT score would have paved the way for college scholarships.

By his mid-20s, Teuton found himself a single dad (after a divorce from his first wife), with a nose for business. His business acumen took wing as he built homes, opened a Chicago-style delicatessen in a suburb of Charleston and later opened an independent sporting goods store in a former big-box retail store.

Later, at age 29, he met and married Lori, and his family eventually grew to include three children.

His long-ago SAT score earned him substantial financial aid when he finally did begin to take undergraduate classes at Charleston Southern University. For a time, he was running three businesses and going to college full time.

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Mark Kennedy

He earned his undergraduate degree in three and half years, finishing at the top of his class, and was accepted to medical school at Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara in Mexico.

In a leap of faith — he didn't speak Spanish — Teuton, his wife, and three children moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, in 2010 and stayed for four years while he attended medical school. He sold all of his businesses interests to clear his path.

"My wife home-schooled the kids. We all had to learn Spanish. It was a struggle," Teuton said of his time in Mexico. "Of the 93 [students] I went through with, only four of us made it through at the end of four years."

After a pre-internship at New York Medical College, Teuton completed his residency in Augusta, Georgia, and then came to Chattanooga to serve a fellowship in surgical obstetrics.

He is now working at the Erlanger Primary Care office on Pineville Road and is scheduled to make a move to an Erlanger Medical Group location in Cleveland, Tennessee, in November.

Although his road to medicine was full of twists, Teuton said he thinks his young adult life experiences — wearing a tool belt, waiting tables and becoming a single father for a time — makes him a more empathetic doctor.

"I don't think it's too late to do anything in life," he said. "I don't think age defines your purpose."

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.

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