Specializing in neurosurgery at McLaren Northern Michigan, Dr. Justin Thomas is committed to patient-centered care in Petoskey. Learn how he tailored his training to fit what he would be seeing in Northern Michigan and what infrastructure upgrades are being made for the specialized treatment he provides.

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You can find Dr. Justin Thomas out and about in the Petoskey area, relishing the outdoors and small-town life that mean so much to him—hitting the slopes, hiking the trails with his Siberian husky or simply bumping into patients for a friendly chat at the grocery store.

For one of McLaren Northern Michigan’s newest docs, getting to know the community he calls home brings Dr. Thomas as much joy as serving it—in fact, the two are inextricably linked, as he trained specifically to work in underserved smaller communities. However, Dr. Thomas isn’t your typical rural physician: He’s a highly specialized neurosurgeon.

Like many of us, his love affair with the tip of the mitten began with childhood summers spent on the lakes. But as his studies at Michigan State University’s medical school progressed, Dr. Thomas knew he wanted to follow his heart and make a life and career Up North. Specializing in neurological surgery of the brain and spinal cord, he tailored his final years of training to fit patient needs in our region.
“I noticed there was not a lot of providers up here offering treatments for more challenging spinal disease, and I wanted to be able to offer treatment or a second opinion without patients having the burden of travel,” he says.

Additionally, our aging population is undergoing spinal surgeries that frequently need to be revisited for areas above and below the original surgery site, so Dr. Thomas focused on revision spine surgery techniques as well.

“The doctors who trained me took me under their wing,” he explains. “They knew I was going to the North, and they also have those attachments to the region, so they really helped me tailor my training to what I would be seeing in practice.”

In addition to general neurosurgery, Dr. Thomas was trained by his mentor Dr. Teck-Mun M. Soo to perform minimally invasive spine surgery and revision spine surgery along with other treatments for complex spinal deformity. He also has a passion for cerebrovascular neurosurgery and is looking to build the stroke and endovascular programs at McLaren.

The hospital recently invested in infrastructure upgrades, including a powerful operating microscope in order to accommodate the specialized treatment Dr. Thomas provides, enabling the surgeon to intraoperatively image the patient to allow for less invasive techniques. It required a million-dollar-plus technology upgrade at the hospital, which was completed in 2021. “Now we can image the brain and the spine at very, very high resolution, and that means safer and more efficient surgery,” Dr. Thomas says.

He explains his decision to take his high-powered specialty North in this way: “When you are in a big city, you’re just a fish in a big, big pond. Here you get to know people, stories, family and history, and you are held to a high standard—you are known, and so are your patients. That always meant a lot to me.”

Photo(s) by Michael Poehlman