Growing up in rural Michigan, Donald Hales, M.D., was thrilled to be teaching and practicing medicine at the prestigious University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center. After earning his medical degree at Johns Hopkins University, Hales chose the West Coast and a big city to pursue his career in orthopedic surgery. It was a dream come true, yet he longed to live in a more rural setting like where he grew up.
Fortunately, at the same time he was considering relocating to a smaller community, Flagstaff orthopedic surgeons Merrill Abeshaus, M.D., and Roman Lewicky, M.D., were looking for a surgeon who specialized in spine procedures to join their team. Years before, Abeshaus and Lewicky had founded Northern Arizona Orthopaedics in Flagstaff. The practice needed to expand to meet the growing needs of the region and the surgeons had sent recruitment letters to several prestigious hospitals.
When Hales read the letter from the Flagstaff surgeons, he sent his regrets, stating he did not want to live in the hot, dry Arizona climate. Within a few days, he was contacted by the Flagstaff surgeons asking him to come visit the town before deciding. Hales arrived in Flagstaff in December 1987, greeted by one of the most intense snow storms in several years. Hales and his family fell in love with the town. In August 1988, they moved to Flagstaff and he became the third orthopedic surgeon at Northern Arizona Orthopaedics.
This past December, 28 years after joining the practice, Hales retired. During his tenure as a spine surgeon, he earned a reputation for his skill, foresight and teaching ability.
In addition to the numerous life-changing surgeries he performed, some of Hales’s greatest achievements include teaching and the use of new surgical implants.
- Hales has traveled nationally and internationally to train other spine surgeons. Physicians have also traveled to Flagstaff to train under Hales and other exceptional orthopedic surgeons at the outpatient surgery center and Flagstaff Medical Center, which supports surgeon-to-surgeon training.
- Hales and Flagstaff orthopedic surgeon John Hall, M.D., were two of the first surgeons to successfully perform total disc replacement using the Prodisc, which was developed in Europe. Nearly a hundred surgeons from around the globe have come to Flagstaff to train with Hales and Hall.
- Hales also worked alongside Flagstaff’s Steven Ritland, M.D., who was instrumental in the development and implementation of minimally invasive spinal fusion using a cortical trajectory pedicle screw, which is gentler on human tissue and less stressful on adjacent levels of the spine than previous methods.
- Hales was one of the early adopters of the Coflex implant, which helps avoid a solid fusion of the spine to decrease long-term complications. He currently is involved in a nationwide study of surgical outcomes with this implant.
Hale is recognized worldwide as an accomplished surgeon who has contributed greatly to Northern Arizona’s extraordinary orthopedic surgical care.
What is your favorite surgical procedure?
“Performing surgery on teenager who has scoliosis. It’s a small percentage of the overall surgeries I do, but when you can drastically improve the life of teen or young adult, it is wonderful.”
Who is someone you admire?
“My wife, Marena. She is a very determined person who is extremely smart and caring. She earned her place in what used to be male-only careers. First, as a certified public accountant and teaching accounting, then she earned her commercial pilot’s license. She was the third woman to pilot with United Airways.”
What is something you never did that you want to?
“Surprisingly, I have never been on a medical mission trip. Not sure why it never happened, but we are making plans to do two trips lasting up to one-and-a-half years each.
Do you plan to continue practicing medicine?
“Yes. Beginning this summer, I plan to work two days a week performing spine surgeries at the VA Medical Center in Phoenix. My dad was a World War II veteran and I have a great deal of respect and compassion for our veterans and want to be of service to those who served.”
What do you do for fun?
“I love to sing. I have been a member of the Flagstaff’s Master Chorale since 1990 and I plan to continue for as long as they will have me. Of course, we currently have 10 grandkids and they are a whol