Steamboat doctor performs landmark elbow replacement surgery |

Steamboat doctor performs landmark elbow replacement surgery

Barb Wheeler hangs out with her goat Patsy on her ranch just outside of Steamboat Springs. Wheeler said Pasty has been great for her recovery since the goat was born with a deformity that makes it difficult to walk. Wheeler can relate to what it means to be limited physically. The pain of rheumatoid arthritis has impacted her life for nearly two years, and she admires Patsy's determination and will to overcome the obstacles.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — By the time Barb Wheeler walked through the doors of Dr. Patrick Johnston’s office in Steamboat Springs, the pain of her rheumatoid arthritis was unbearable, the medications doctors were giving her had no effect and the shots she was taking for relief only lasted a few days.

“I was in pain all the time, but not anymore,” Wheeler said. “This is more than what I had hoped for, and I didn’t even know this was an option for me. This is amazing.”

In early January, Johnston performed an elective, total elbow replacement for rheumatoid arthritis on Wheeler, marking the first time the surgical procedure had been done at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. She had her other elbow replaced March 8.

Johnston is an elbow orthopedic specialist with Steamboat Orthopedic Medicine Associates, and he was able to perform his landmark surgeries at the hospital in Steamboat.

After meeting with Wheeler for an initial consultation, Johnston said he could barely contain his excitement.

“When I met her and she told me how much pain she was in … I walked out of the room and went out and told my physician’s assistant in the office, ‘I am so excited because we are going to make this lady so much better,’” Johnston said. “Barb didn’t know it because she was in the room, but I was jumping for joy in the hallway because I was so happy, because I knew that I could make her better.”

Doing surgery on an elbow is more complicated than other joints in the body, Johnston said, because the elbow is so unique. Unlike the knee, which is basically a hinge, the elbow moves in many different directions, and the bones that doctors work with are much smaller and more delicate.

Elbow replacements tend to last about 15 years if the patient follows the advice of doctors, which includes limiting the weight someone can lift to 10 pounds on each arm.

Wheeler is fine with that limitation, and she said she is looking forward to working in her garden again.

“I could not do anything without it hurting,” she said.”I could not get in the car and drive. I could not work in the garden, and I could not curl my hair.

“I just want to live a life pain free,” Wheeler explained. “You never really stop and think about what your elbows do. If they don’t hurt, you don’t think about them. So when you have a lot of pain in them, you realize that everything you do is connected to your elbows and your shoulders.”

Emily Tjosvold, a certified hand therapist and upper extremity specialist with UCHealth SportsMed Clinic, has been working with Wheeler during her recovery.

My whole process is working with Barb on how much to move, what type of pain is OK, what type of pain is not OK and what kind of activities of daily living she is allowed to do in the different phases of therapy,” Tjosvold said.

Johnston joined Steamboat Orthopaedic Associates in 2016. His practice encompasses general orthopedics, and he specializes in providing comprehensive care for ailments from the fingertips to the elbow, as well as treating fractures throughout the body.

Johnston is one of just a few surgeons in the region trained to perform endoscopic carpal tunnel releases, according to his biography. He is currently sees patients in Steamboat Springs, Granby and Craig.

“I’m a hand and elbow surgeon,” Johnston said. “There really hasn’t been a permanent, (fully) fellowship-trained hand surgeon,” Johnston said. “I’m doing stuff here that I think probably is only done by a few people in the state. It’s things that, for mountain hand surgeons, are not doing much. It’s more stuff that is normally done in academic centers.”

Wheeler is just glad that Johnston was here when she needed him.

“I can’t tell you how great it was to be able to do this in Steamboat,” Wheeler said. “I’ve heard about people who have had surgeries and had to go to Vail or Denver and drive back and forth down there after surgery. I just thought, ‘wow, this is heaven sent,’ because I can do this right here in Steamboat.”

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.

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