Vascular surgeon trades a career in the operating room for adventures in the classroom and beyond
IN 1998, after 26 years of private practice, Dr. Donald Arey, Jr., decided he was ready to hang up his scalpel. The then 58-year-old general and vascular surgeon, had been on call for thousands of nights, trying to sleep, but always knowing the phone could ring at any moment with someone calling him in to care for a gunshot wound, or a broken leg. It started to wear on Dr. Arey in his mid-50s, and two years shy of his 60th birthday, the Polk County Medical Association member decided to retire.
“It took guts to do it,” he admits. “I wasn’t sure how it would work out.”
Dr. Arey loved being a surgeon, but after devoting so many years to his practice, he was ready for a new adventure.
Dr. Arey grew up in a medical family in Danville, Virginia. His dad was a family practitioner and his mom was a nurse. When Dr. Arey was about 12 to 13 years old, he took up woodworking, building boats, and model airplanes. He loved working with his hands, and his hobbies foreshadowed his successful career. “I realized I had above average skills, so I gravitated to surgery,” he explains.
After attending the Virginia Military Institute for his undergraduate degree, Dr. Arey applied and was accepted to the University of Virginia Medical School. After graduating from UVA, Dr. Arey did an internship at the Medical University of South Carolina and then moved on to Orlando Regional Medical Center. Dr. Arey says he counts several surgeons from ORMC as his mentors during his four-year stay. “There were a lot of really good surgeons there that I was able to learn from,” he confirms.
Dr. Arey was always physically fit. And the first thing he did when he retired was he went to Israel for a week by himself, hiking through the country. Then he and his wife Ellen went to Alaska where he rode his bike along the Alaskan Highway from Skagway to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory of Canada. “That was just an awesome experience,” he recalls.
Other adventures followed; a bike ride from Miami to Key West, one along the coast of California, another along the coast of Oregon, plus four marathon races under his belt. But these undertakings where not the toughest feat he ever tackled. Before he retired in 1992, with summit conditions of 100-mph winds and a temperature of 15 degrees above zero, Dr. Arey climbed Mount Washington in New Hampshire. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says.
Despite his new-found freedom and multiple adventures, Dr. Arey wasn’t satisfied. “I felt like I needed to do something,” he says. He became a medical expert witness for medical malpractice. Dr. Arey reviewed approximately 75 cases over a 10-year period.
He also decided to share the knowledge he had gained over his illustrious career by becoming a volunteer teacher at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. “I’m teaching what I know best, which is vascular and general surgery.”
As an Assistant Professor of Surgery, Dr. Arey estimates he has taught more than 1,200 students. Teaching gives him the opportunity to help the next generation of surgeons as well as keep up his credentials if he decides to venture back into the courtroom. “I gave it up about a year ago, but I miss the courtroom, attorneys, and depositions. I got pretty good at it.”
As for teaching, he seems to have a knack for it as well. He instructs 12 to 16 times a year for four hour-long sessions. He thinks medical schools push grades too much, leaving out students who would make great doctors but can’t make the grade. But he offers this advice for aspiring surgeons: “If you really want to do it, full speed ahead.”
Retirement — or at least what Dr. Arey calls retirement — has worked out well for him. Teaching, physical adventures, volunteer work in the community, and a possible return to the courtroom, keep his mind and body challenged. He also gets to spend more time with his wife Ellen, son Don Arey, III, an instructor with the NBA, Orlando Magic, as well as a coach for the Warner University basketball team, and his two children who followed in his footsteps; daughter Dr. Andreae Shaw, a pediatrician in Jacksonville, and Dr. Mark Arey, an ophthalmologist in Tampa.
Despite a distinguished career, Dr. Arey’s curriculum vitae is a modest one page. He takes pride in that fact, explaining that he wasn’t put on earth to write papers, he was put on earth to take care of patients. And when he had accomplished that, he set off on his new adventures with no end in sight.
DR. AREY’S PROFESSIONAL TRAINING:
• Undergraduate: BA, Virginia Military Institute, Lextington, Va.
• Graduate: MD, University of Virginia, School of Medicine, Charlottesville, Va.
• Internship: Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, S.C.
• Board Certified: American Board of Surgery
• 1967-1971: Residency General Surgery, Orland Regional Medical Center, Orlando Fla.
• 1971-1972: Fellowship in Vascular Surgery, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit, Michigan.
• 1972-1998: Private Practice, General Vascular Surgery, Winter Haven/Lake Wales, Fla.
• 2003 to present: Assistant Professor of Surgery, University of South Florida, College of Medicine, Tampa, Fla.
• 2005 to present: Volunteer Surgeon, Lakeland Volunteers in Medicine Clinic, Lakeland, Fla.
• 2013 to present: Assistant Professor of Surgery, University of Central Florida Medical School, Orlando, Fla.
story by BONNY JOHNSON
portrait by LUIS BETANCOURT