Leaving a Legacy: Cook Children’s First Full-Time Neurosurgeon to Retire After Nearly Three Decades
Pioneer in pediatric neurosurgery, David Donahue, M.D., known for surgical excellence and compassion
When David Donahue, M.D., made a visit to Texas in 1996 to explore the opportunity to join Cook Children’s medical staff, he never expected he’d end up calling Fort Worth home. Having made several moves in as many years, he and his wife weren’t looking to uproot again. But after touring the facility and meeting the staff, the prospect of becoming the medical center’s first full-time pediatric neurosurgeon and helping to pioneer the development of its neurosurgical program captured his attention and his heart.
“I was blown away even then by the hospital and by the people here,” Dr. Donahue said.
Twenty four years later, Dr. Donahue will retire from full-time practice on Dec. 15, leaving behind a legacy of expert surgical skill, innovation, continuous improvement and compassionate care.
“Dr. Donahue has really been a pioneer in bringing pediatric neurosurgical care to the children of Fort Worth, North Texas and beyond,” said James Cunningham, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “He came to Fort Worth after an impressive training resume and brought with him a keen intellect, advanced surgical skills, and a sense of innovation in the development of new and improved care for children.
“While his accomplishments during his career have been impressive, I believe that Dr. Donahue will be remembered most for his dedicated and compassionate care for the children and families he served,” Dr. Cunningham said. “His work ethic, his mentorship and his collegiality will be sorely missed on a daily basis at Cook Children’s, but I have no doubt that David will continue to find ways to contribute to the health and well-being of our community.”
Dr. Donahue, neurosurgeon at the Jane and John Justin Neuroscience Center at Cook Children’s Medical Center, turned his eyes toward Texas at the urging of fellow neurosurgeon Jack McCallum, M.D. Ph.D., whose adult neurosurgical practice, with the Southwest Neurosurgical Group, was pulling double duty at the time by taking pediatric cases when needed. As the demand for pediatric neurosurgical interventions grew, it became clear that the addition of a full-time pediatric neurosurgeon was imperative to meet the neurological health needs of children in Fort Worth and the surrounding region.
“I wouldn't be here if Dr. McCallum hadn’t invited me to come,” Dr. Donahue said. “That’s how it all started. The good will of that adult neurosurgical group to take on the care of children.”
During his tenure, Dr. Donahue has led the development of the pediatric neurosurgical program at Cook Children’s, growing it from a single surgeon to a nationally recognized team of four surgeons and a number of medical professionals. This growth has led to the addition of innovative technology such as iMRI-guided surgery and the use of endoscopy and stereotactic EEG. Dr. Donahue is quick to credit these advancements at Cook Children’s to his associates while taking pride in his role in assembling the team.
“He brought a lot of things here as a surgeon,” said M. Scott Perry, M.D., epileptologist and medical director of Neurology and the Genetic Epilepsy Clinic at Cook Children’s. “When you talk about the more minimally invasive approaches of laser ablation and stereotactic EEG, he’s come along the whole way, which is why it’s great that he’s a continual learner. He was always willing to learn the next thing and implement it.”
Humble At Heart
Austin Roberts was the recipient of Dr. Donahue’s exceptional care, but it was his humility that made way for a collaborative effort that saved her life.
When Roberts suffered multiple life-threatening complications, including meningitis, following the surgical removal of a brain tumor when she was 6 years old, Dr. Donahue stepped in with a treatment plan that helped her recover fully. Two years later, a seizure revealed the tumor had returned. This time it was imperative to remove the entire tumor to prevent its regrowth. The surgery was extremely risky and could only be safely accomplished with the use of iMRI technology, which Cook Children’s did not have at the time.
Together with the Roberts family, Dr. Donahue reached out to a surgeon using iMRI technology at UCLA Health and arranged for Roberts to have a second surgery to remove the tumor there.
“We are deeply appreciative of Dave’s willingness to partner with the team at UCLA Medical Center as our story could have been very different without what they had to offer with the iMRI,” Carol Roberts, Austin’s mother, said. “His humility saved my daughter’s life.”
But Dr. Donahue wasn’t done taking care of Austin.
Once again, Austin developed meningitis after returning home to Fort Worth. For a second time in her life, Dr. Donahue’s treatment plan and care helped her overcome the life-threatening complication and, at the age of 26, she remains cancer free.
“Next to Jesus, he’s the man that saved my life,” Austin said. “I owe that to him and, yes, to his humility, but also to his resiliency and his honesty. His kindness was so comforting to me and my parents through that whole journey.”
The Roberts became life-long friends with Dr. Donahue and his family, and joined with him and others in a campaign dubbed the Austin Roberts Refuse to Lose Fund to raise money to bring the iMRI technology to Cook Children’s.
“David Donahue was so very instrumental in the Refuse to Lose campaign because he knew exactly what he needed as a neurosurgeon,” said Jennifer Johnson, assistant vice president, Jewel Charity. “The technology was changing so rapidly that, by the time we had raised all of the money, technological advances were better and we were able to get the best imaging technology available.”
Country music legend Garth Brooks lent his voice to the effort by performing a private benefit concert at Bass Performance Hall at the close of the two-year campaign. Playing alongside Brooks that night was Roberts’s father, Dan, also a country music singer and songwriter. In the end, the Austin Roberts Refuse to Lose Fund raised $4.5 million of the $10 million needed for the technology. Because of their work and Dr. Donahue’s focus on his patients’ needs rather than his own acclaim, kids receiving care at Cook Children’s now have access to the same technology that saved Roberts’ life.
“The thing that's unique about pediatric neurosurgery is that you're trying to help people and you're also challenged intellectually,” Dr. Donahue said. “There’s so much happening in the world of science and neuroscience research. This hospital is involved in that, which is really one of the reasons I'm glad I'm here. All those things make it a really good thing to be doing with one's time.”
Patients Sing Praises
While Dr. Donahue’s list of professional accomplishments are many, none carry more weight than the personal praise of his colleagues and patients.
“To the kids he’s cared for, he’s meant a cure from epilepsy for many of them,” Dr. Perry said.
That’s true for Cole Pettit, 22, who battled epilepsy from the time he was a young child into his teens. The condition severely impacted his quality of life and ability to function in school. Medications left him in a fog much of the time. Most doctors said surgery wasn’t an option, until Dr. Donahue and the neurosciences team at Cook Children’s gave them hope.
“It wasn't a hundred percent guarantee,” said Kelley Pettit, Cole’s mother. “There was still some reservation. They couldn't really see super clear where the problem area was, but in talking with the team of doctors, including Dr. Donahue, I felt like there was a chance. And that's the first time that we had heard that in a long time. It was really kind of the first glimmer of hope.”
At the age of 15, Cole underwent surgery performed by Dr. Donahue’s steady hands. He has been seizure free since that day.
“It completely changed the entire trajectory of his life,” Cole’s mom said.
In addition to graduating from high school in the top half of his class—a feat once thought impossible for him—Cole graduated in August from Texas Tech University with a degree in kinesiology.
“Dr. Donahue is an incredible person, his career aside,” Cole said. What he's done for me is incredible. The opportunities I've been given and made available to me by the blessings he's given me are just unreal. I wouldn't have asked for anyone different to have been my surgeon.”
Even when his patients faced difficult outcomes, Dr. Donahue stayed by their side offering as much comfort and support as he did medical expertise.
Charlie Bourland was born prematurely with a chromosome abnormality and suffered from infantile seizures. At the age of 4, he became a patient of Dr. Donahue’s when he underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. During one particularly difficult hospital stay, Dr. Donahue made a point to check on Charlie after learning he had been admitted. Together with his wife, Dr. Donahue made a special visit to Charlie’s hospital room to meet with the Bourland family and discuss his thoughts on Charlie’s prognosis.
“This was the week before Christmas and I am sure they had somewhere they were supposed to be together,” Karen Bourland, Charlie’s mom, said. “He made us feel important and loved. He made us feel we could get through the terrible times ahead because of all we had already been through together. He made us feel safe.”
Bourland remembers how Dr. Donahue cried with their family that night and comforted Charlie’s siblings. Charlie passed away a little over a year later in 2015 at the age of 15.
“Terrible things can happen to children, despite everyone doing their best for the child,” Dr. Donahue said. “It's just a real tough thing that you sometimes can never do well enough. You always want to do better. That's one of the challenges of this job and a very great stressor.”
Dr. Donahue credits his wife for helping him manage the intensity.
“I'm married to a wonderful pediatric nurse,” he said. “I don't know anybody who could put up with me, number one, but also who could manage these sorts of stresses as well as she can. She has been a real stabilizer for me."
In December, Dr. and Mrs. Donahue will celebrate 41 years of marriage. They have three sons and five grandsons.
Most consider retirement the end of their working life but, always the learner, Dr. Donahue sees it as a new beginning. His post retirement plans include completing a master’s degree in public health and channeling that into advocating for the underserved.
“I think it'll take me a year or two to get that degree because I'm certainly not going to go full time,” he said. “I'm going to have time for my family and my grandchildren and to do some other things that I’ve wanted to do and haven’t had time to do.”
Some of those other things include travel, photography, learning German and honing his newest craft—bread baking.
“He’s baking bread every day,” Mrs. Donahue said. “I now have a pantry full of different kinds of flour. He loves to cook anyway so this has been kind of his thing to try different types of bread and make it for friends and neighbors.”
Even with all of these new endeavors, Dr. Donahue says he’ll still miss the relationships he’s made while doing a job he loves.
“I’ll miss the people, but I really won’t miss staying up all night and worrying about things the way I do now,” Dr. Donahue said. “I don’t think I’ll miss the visions of pain and suffering, but I will miss the children. I will miss the excitement of being in the operating room.”
In like manner, Dr. Donahue is sure to be missed by his colleagues, the staff at Cook Children’s and his patients and their families, but his imprint on the hospital and pediatric neurosurgery in Northeast Texas will remain indelible. His legacy of surgical excellence built on a foundation of compassion, attentiveness, humility and continuous improvement will continue to drive and shape the neurosurgical team at Cook Children’s for years to come.