Donald Whiting knew he wasn't cut out to work in the family's appliance business.
"It became clear early on I wasn't a salesman. Dad [Leonard] suggested I pursue a different career. Dad was pretty insightful," Whiting said.
Instead of selling washers and dryers, Whiting, who grew up in the Fairview section of Altoona, has gone on to become one of the world's leading experts on the use of deep brain stimulation to treat chronic movement disorders.
Bishop Guilfoyle graduate Dr. Donald Whiting has made an international name for himself for deep brain stimulation.
Dr. Donald Whiting, a 1976 Bishop Guilfoyle graduate, is best known for his work with deep brain stimulation, in which electrodes are implanted within the brain to deliver a continuous low electric current to the target area.
While at Bishop Guilfoyle High School, Whiting said became interested in becoming a doctor.
"I liked the brain stuff. I was not surgery-oriented. I was more figuring out-oriented, figuring out the mental aspect of what goes on," Whiting said.
In college, he was involved in independent research putting electrodes in cats and rats' brains to measure learning behaviors.
"Putting electrodes in seemed pretty entertaining," Whiting said. "I started out more interested in psychiatry and evolved into neurosurgery."
After graduating from Bishop Guilfoyle in 1976, Whiting went on to Grinnell College in Iowa where he received a bachelor's degree in chemistry and psychology in 1980.
Whiting received a master's degree in psychology from Georgetown University in 1981 and his M.D. from Thomas Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1985. He then completed an internship in general surgery at Geisinger Medical Center followed by a junior residency in neurosurgery at the Cleveland Clinic, a fellowship in neurotrauma at Allegheny General Hospital and chief residency in neurosurgery at Cleveland Clinic.
He joined the practice of Dr. E. Richard Prostko, who remains his partner today, and became affiliated with Allegheny General in 1992.
Whiting is vice chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Allegheny General and surgical director at the Center for Spasticity and Movement Disorders in Pittsburgh.
Whiting is best-known for his work with deep brain stimulation (DBS), in which electrodes are implanted within the brain to deliver a continuous low electric current to the target area. DBS is used to treat people with movement disorders like Parkinson's disease, essential tremor and dystonia.
DBS can modify the symptoms of Parkinson's disease, Whiting said.
"We implanted 400 patients over a 14-year period with movement disorders. A lot of times it is a lot more effective than medicine and can eliminate a lot of the side effects," Whiting said. "It gives them their life back when medicines are not working."
In 2010, Allegheny General became the first hospital in the region and one of a few selected medical centers in the country to offer deep brain stimulation as a treatment for patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Whiting, along with Dr. Michael Oh, also recently started a study to see if deep brain stimulation can help patients with morbid obesity.
"We are trying to see if we can regulate their weight thermostat centrally rather than go through gastric bypass surgery," Whiting said. "It is still in its preliminary stages."
Dr. Jack Wilberger, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Allegheny General, called Whiting "a bundle of energy" and said he has made a significant impact in western Pennsylvania.
"Deep brain stimulation has increased widely around the country. He pioneered it in western Pennsylvania. He made it available to patients here long before it was available in other places," Wilberger said. "He has a track record of experience in providing the best quality and safe care for the patients."
Whiting's work with Parkinson's disease patients using deep brain stimulation has been extraordinary, Prostko said.
"He has changed many, many lives, something he should be proud of. He has helped take that technology and refined it to be applied to patients in a smooth manner so they can get the benefits of cutting edge technology," Prostko said. "He is the second or third leading implanter in the country."
Whiting said Prostko, his partner, has played a key role in his career.
"He has been my role model all along and he is also an excellent surgeon and family man," Whiting said.
"I am honored he would say that. He has been around some prolific people and for him to say that, I am flattered," Prostko said.
Whiting has collected numerous honors and awards too many to mention.
For example, he has been named to America's Top Doctors published annually by the independent research firm Castle Connolly Medical Ltd. each year from 2003-11. He also is listed in Guide to America's Top Surgeons, Best Doctors in America and Pittsburgh Magazine's Top Docs.
Whiting has written 31 full-length published papers, and has been involved with writing six books and book chapters and 39 abstracts. He has given 50 local presentations on deep brain stimulation and related subjects and 27 national presentations including appearances on ABC's "20/20," ABC "Nightline" and the "Oprah Winfrey Show."
He enjoyed his appearance with Oprah.
"It was pretty neat, she was a very nice person. It was exciting to be there. She creates an energy with the audience," Whiting said.
Whiting said he gets back home about every six weeks and enjoyed growing up in Altoona. His wife, Cindy, is a Roaring Spring native.
"It was a great town to grow up in. It was big enough to have everything you want and small enough to be homey and comfortable," Whiting said. "The whole experience contributed to what I am today."
Whiting said his days at Bishop Guilfoyle where he learned "right from wrong" played a key role in his development.
Bernie Jubeck, his world cultures teacher, and John Prosperi, a guidance counselor at BG, remember Whiting as a good student.
"He was very conscientious but enjoyed the school life. I think the young man was driven," Jubeck said. "With his perseverance and dedication, I knew whatever he put his mind to he was going to do it. You had a sense that whatever he planned to do with his life he would put everything into it and be successful."
"I would have thought he would be successful. With the work he has done, he is a guy who reached new pinnacles. It doesn't surprise me," Prosperi said. "He is putting his talents to use and doing a good job. I thought he would do well in whatever he did."
Al Coppetta and Shawn Sullivan also are not surprised by Whiting's success.
"He is a terrific friend and is very humble about his accomplishments. He is always there if you need him. He has a great sense of humor. He is just a great person," said Coppetta, a family friend. "He always knew what he wanted to do. He is just a very focused person. You knew he was going to be something and go somewhere."
Sullivan, a close high school friend, recently saw Whiting at their 35th class reunion over Labor Day weekend.
"Don is very down to earth. For all of his success, he treats everyone the same as he did in high school. He is friendly with everybody," Sullivan said. "He was always very intelligent and a lot of fun to be around. He always had in his mind he wanted to be a doctor. Don deserves everything he has gotten: he worked hard, he is a good person and came from a good family. He is a tribute to the school and the community."
Whiting said he enjoyed playing sports with his three kids while they were growing up. Now that they are away at school, he finds time to enjoy outings with his wife, such as climbing the 19,400-foot-high Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa in January 2010.
"That was definitely a bonding experience. Spending eight or nine days climbing a mountain and sleeping in a two-man tent, you find out who you are close to," Whiting said. "It was the most out of our comfort zone experience we ever had. We don't camp and we don't hike."
Whiting, 53, said he has no plans to retire and hopes to continue helping people.
"I love my job. I will continue as long as I can," Whiting said. "I would like to develop new ways to help patients in my field and find things not treatable with medicine that we can control with deep brain stimulation and spine surgery. I want to try to find new things to make people's lives better."
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.