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Knees & shoulders above the rest

Allyn HarveyAspen Times Staff Writer

Dr. Robert E. Hunter, one of the best-known names among the many locals who have blown out their knees or injured their shoulders, is leaving Aspen after 14 years.Hunter, a partner in Orthopaedic Associates, will begin next month at the University of Arizona as a professor of orthopedics and director of the sports medicine program. The move marks a return of sorts for Hunter, who began his career as a faculty member at the University of Minnesota’s school of medicine.”It’s been a dream of mine to return to a university program and work with younger residents,” Hunter said, explaining a decision that includes a hefty pay cut but no reduction in work.Hunter actually never gave up teaching, even as he became a workaday surgeon cutting into the knees and shoulders of some of the wealthiest and most famous people in the world. He’s been teaching young doctors in Aspen for the past 14 years, just in a more focused and private-practice-oriented manner than at a university.In 1989 Hunter moved to Aspen and began working with Orthopaedic Associates, joining the practice of Drs. John Freeman and Mark Purnell. Part of the reason he was hired was to start a fellowship/residency program. “That’s what brought me out here – the opportunity to start an academic teaching program,” Hunter said.Now well established, the fellowship program at Orthopaedic Associates selects two doctors a year, both of whom have finished their residency, and pays them a relatively small stipend to assist in all aspects of the practice. After a year, the fellows leave to set up their own practices or take positions elsewhere. The program also selects one doctor a year who is midway through his or her five-year residency training to work in Aspen for a year.Dr. Scott Stubbs, one of this year’s fellows, said he had more than 100 sports medicine fellowships around the country to choose from, but his top choice was Aspen Orthopaedics. Dr. Hunter returned the compliment, saying Dr. Stubbs and co-fellow Dr. Paul Rahill were the partners’ top two choices among the 150 or so applicants this year.”It’s a great fellowship with the experience you get and the great location,” said Stubbs. The types of orthopedic injuries that come through the emergency rooms of big-city trauma centers are often far more profound and potentially debilitating than a blown ligament, worn-out shoulder or broken wrist. But for someone looking to focus on sports medicine and the types of injuries typically suffered by athletes, Stubbs believes there probably aren’t many places better than Aspen. “It’s good for isolated knee and shoulder injuries,” he said.In addition to hands-on experience in the operating room, the fellowship includes a series of lectures and courses on topics relevant to practicing orthopedic medicine in a sports-oriented community. The educational seminars are open to all doctors, as well as other health specialists who might have an interest in the subject.In 1996, Hunter helped found the Aspen Foundation for Sports Medicine, Education and Research, which has become the formal organization behind the fellowship and education program.Over the course of 14 ski seasons, Hunter estimates that he has performed surgery on “thousands and thousands” of locals and visitors injured while skiing, biking or hiking.Hospital statistics bear him out on that estimate. In 2002, an admittedly light year in terms of skier visits, Aspen Valley Hospital’s operating room handled 739 orthopedic cases. AVH spokeswoman Ginny Dyche said that represents close to 60 percent of all surgeries performed at the hospital last year. And that doesn’t even include the surgeries that occurred at the practice’s midvalley clinic.One thing Hunter has never been known for is his bedside manner. Patients, whether they adore or dislike him, report that he tends to move through visits quickly, just long enough to inform them of what exactly needs to be done. “He’s in and out – bam, bam, bam. He says this is what we need to do, and then he’s gone,” said Megan Harvey, a pro with the Aspen Skiing Co and a member of the Professional Ski Instructors Association’s alpine demonstration team. Harvey (this reporter’s sister) has blown out her ACL twice, once in 1994 and again in 2001. In both cases she chose Dr. Hunter to perform the surgery. “I’ve been very happy with the work he’s done, both times. I send everyone I know to him; I’m sorry he’s leaving,” she said.”We measure our success on the ability of our patients to get back on the skis and compete at the highest level,” Hunter said.At the University of Arizona, Hunter will oversee eight university staff doctors and eight clinical faculty members, who both work at the university and maintain a private practice.Hunter, 53, says the move to Arizona allows him to fulfill his dream of returning to academia before he gets too old to pull it off. It also allows him to continue working in his two areas of specialization.As director of the sports medicine department, Hunter will work directly with athletes at the PAC 10 school and lead research efforts. “The revolutionary developments in the field of arthroscopic surgery have come about because of sports medicine,” Hunter said. In selecting Hunter, the University of Arizona has chosen a doctor who has demonstrated his willingness to try out new techniques. In April 1997, for instance, Hunter became one of the first U.S. doctors to perform a cartilage transplant using a method developed in central Europe. The patient, Jody Jacaaby, was unable to do even the most basic of activities because of cartilage loss in her left knee until after the surgery.Hunter says over the years he’s seen the type of injuries grow to include the wrist and ankle injuries typically sustained by snowboarders. Equipment improvements in the ski industry, especially with bindings and boots, have also changed the nature of injuries – broken legs and ankles have decreased in frequency, while torn ligaments are on the rise.”Knees are taking a lot of the force that used to shatter ankles and break tibias,” Hunter said.The reduction in pay that comes with a job at a taxpayer-supported university means Hunter will have to sell his house here in Aspen. He will be moving to Tucson ahead of his wife, Patti, son Wynne and daughter Jackie. They are planning to join him at the end of the summer.The thing Hunter will miss most is his patients, calling it a privilege to have treated fitness-minded people who were willing to work so hard to recover from their injuries.”Without a question, to leave this job is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com.


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