Ho Din Award winner pondered dental school but chose orthopaedic surgery

By Rachel Skei Donihoo 

The son of an orthopaedic surgeon and an internist, Dr. Michael Van Hal grew up surrounded by physicians, medical jargon and the graphic surgery videos his father brought home. Still, he had little interest in joining his parents’ profession until his junior year of college, when a childhood friend was seriously injured in an auto accident.

“I thought what the doctors did for my buddy was really miraculous,” said Dr. Van Hal, this year’s recipient of the Ho Din Award. “They took a broken body and put it back together again — almost like the pieces of a puzzle.

Dr. Michael Van Hal

“Without the care of the trauma physicians and the surgeons, I don’t think he would have ever walked again. It was then that it really hit me – I can really do something to change someone’s life.”

His unassuming, matter-of-fact manner and great calm under pressure are just two of the qualities that have garnered him the Ho Din Award — the highest honor given to a graduating student.

“Michael stands out in my mind as the most remarkable combination of bright intellect and gentle humility in any student I have known in my 28 years on this campus,” said Dr. James Wagner, associate dean for student affairs. “I got to know him while teaching and during the weeks he devoted to the medical mission trips to Mexico, one manifestation of his gentleness and compassion. His intellectual prowess is apparent in his test scores and comprehension of the complexities of bedside medicine, and I have every confidence that he will be an exceptional asset to his field.”

Ho Din is a Greek acronym representing “the spirit of medical wisdom,” and Southwestern Medical Foundation has given the award annually since 1943. The Ho Din Award, which includes a certificate, a gold key
charm and $7,500, honors Dr. Edward H. Cary, the first president of Southwestern Medical Foundation.

Winners are recognized for exhibiting outstanding knowledge, understanding and compassion.

After graduating summa cum laude from Texas A&M University, Dr. Van Hal scrapped his original plans for dental school and set his sights on UT Southwestern. During his time in medical school, he has continued to explore “service to others” through a long list of community activities.

It was a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico, during his second year of medical school that Dr. Van Hal says cemented his desire to help those in need.

“It was, without a doubt, one of the best experiences I had in medical school,” he said. “I was inexperienced and probably didn’t have much to offer, but it was immensely rewarding to dig in and help – if only in a limited way. I know that I’d like to incorporate international relief into my long-term career, so it will be fun to see where that takes me.”

Dr. Van Hal — who also was elected to Alpha Omega Alpha, the national medical honor society — served as an AOA mentor for first- and second-year medical students.

“I had the pleasure of working with Mike on an AOA service project providing sports physicals to local middle school students,” said Dr. Angela Mihalic, associate dean for student affairs.

“Mike was an excellent leader — making sure the event was successful and that the students were cared for. He is one of the most intelligent, hard-working and humble students I have ever met. He demonstrates a commitment to academic excellence that is unmatched. Mike has the skills and natural abilities to be successful at whatever he chooses to pursue.”

The son of an Air Force surgeon, Dr. Van Hal was born in Alaska and raised “all over the map,” although he attended high school at Faith Christian School in Grapevine.

After graduation, he will head to the University of Southern California for an internship and residency in orthopaedic surgery. Already an avid runner, water skier and snowboarder, he says he’s excited to have the opportunity to add “surfer” to his list of activities.

“It’s going to be an adventure,” he said. “I still remember the first day of medical school, and I’m amazed that it’s all over. As much as I’m looking forward to moving on, I know how much I’m going to miss my classmates and the incredible faculty members who have meant so much to me these last four years. UT Southwestern will always have a special place in my heart.”