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Resident Brian Levy speaks with Staff doctor Dominic Shelton (right) regarding a patient during his shift at Sunnybrook emergency. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Resident Brian Levy speaks with Staff doctor Dominic Shelton (right) regarding a patient during his shift at Sunnybrook emergency. (Charla Jones/Charla Jones/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


Pursuing a dream after corporate life Add to ...

Dressed in hospital scrubs, Brian Levy stands at an elderly patient's bedside, waiting for instructions from the physician on duty in emergency at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. The doctor examines the patient and discovers an irregular heart beat. Mr. Levy takes on the task of soothing the worried patient.

It's a far cry from his previous career. Before he became a medical student, Mr. Levy was chief executive officer of one of Canada's top electronics chains, the Source by Circuit City.

By next May, if all goes as planned, he'll graduate from medical school - a childhood dream coming true at the age of 51.

"I think you have to be a little bit obsessive to go to medical school," the plain-spoken Mr. Levy says with a laugh. "I've always been an over-doer."

He made the dramatic career switch in 2006, after 30 years of climbing to the top at the electronics retailer. But it turns out the jobs of CEO and physician have a lot in common. They both require hard work, persistence and sacrifice: Both vocations have kept Mr. Levy away from his wife and their two teenaged children for long stretches.

Meet more people who turned their dreams into reality

And his medical training is just beginning. When he graduates this spring, Mr. Levy will have another five years to go as a resident before reaching his ultimate goal of specializing in emergency room medicine.

It helps that he has a security blanket. When he walked away from Circuit City in 2006 after a tumultuous period at the company, he pocketed about $11-million in compensation and stocks. That has allowed his family to continue to enjoy a comfortable suburban lifestyle outside of Toronto. "As much as anybody can be an idealist, it's hard to be an idealist when you can't pay the rent," he says.

Mr. Levy's midlife about-turn is something many a weary soldier in the corporate trenches has fantasized about. The rigours of the recession have only made that longing more pronounced and, in the case of executives who find themselves out of a job, it has suddenly become a real option. All it takes to make it happen, judging by Mr. Levy's case, is to have a dream and unlimited dedication.

An accidental career

Perhaps the first portent of Brian Levy's ultimate career was the bug hospital he created when playing in the backyard with his two sisters. "We'd find sick insects and cure them," says Debra Band, his older sister, now 52 and an artist living in Potomac, Md. "Once we thought we saw a splinter sticking out of a caterpillar. He removed it. I do not remember how long the patient lived."

Mr. Levy came by the interest naturally. Growing up in an orthodox Jewish family in Chattanooga, Tenn., Mr. Levy (who still speaks with a Southern lilt) learned at an early age the importance of honing his intellectual skills. His father, a lawyer, brought home science kits and microscopes for his son, not football gear or tickets for games.

The young Mr. Levy spent hours poring over tissue samples and an encyclopedia. He was only happy if he had a perfect report card, says his mother, Josie Roskies, 74, now living in Montreal. She wanted him to be a doctor "from way back," she acknowledges. Every Jewish mother's dream? "I never forced it," she insists. "I would tell him to relax a bit."

Mr. Levy doesn't remember feeling pressured to be a doctor. Although he was drawn to TV medical shows and biology classes, he was also captivated by the budding world of electronics.

He was "always tinkering with something," his mother recalls. One of his favourite pastimes was hanging out at RadioShack, which was the dominant chain in electronics. At 15, he got his first job as a part-time clerk at an outlet in downtown Atlanta, where he had moved after his father joined a law practice there. The chain's policy was actually to hire no one younger than 18. Mr. Levy obtained his exemption by persistently telephoning the company's head of human resources in Texas.

For the next six years, while attending high school and then studying business at the University of Georgia, he continued working part time at the store, steadily gaining more responsibility.

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