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Surgeon is an anti-gravity machine

January 7, 2009

In the glass-walled conference room at Colorado State's Orthopaedic Research Center, Dr. C. Wayne McIlwraith is scrolling through photos on his laptop. The photos aren't what you'd expect from a veterinarian whose abilities in equine orthopedic surgery and joint disease are known by the medical community throughout the world.

Instead, for a brief time on a fall afternoon, McIlwraith is showing a visitor photos of his vertical (and overhanging) world of rock climbing from Canada to Europe to New Zealand, where he was born.

Absorbed in climbing

McIlwraith, director of the Orthopaedic Research Center and Barbara Cox Anthony University Endowed Chair, has been absorbed in climbing longer than he’s been a veterinary surgeon.

Still, his research in joint disease in horses is legendary, and he doesn’t hesitate to join lengthy research projects such as finding ways to build safer racetracks to reduce catastrophic injuries in the ultra-competitive world of thoroughbred racing. Other areas of research (as if he had 48-hour days) within the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences include advances in arthroscopic surgery, genetic susceptibility to injury, early diagnosis of bone and joint disease, and rehabilitation.

But for now, his eyes are riveted on the high, steep peaks of the world. He speaks of enticing places like the Lotus Flower Tower in Canada’s Logan Mountains, Italy’s Dolomites, the Heemskirk Face of New Zealand’s Mount Tasman, and the East Ridge of Chopicalqui, a 20,848-foot titan in Peru, where he almost perished.

Close calls

McIlwraith was leader of that 1973 expedition in Peru, and he was belaying his partner at around 19,500 feet when a cornice broke. “I dropped and pulled my mate off,” he says. “I thought we were both done.” The face was vertical to overhanging, but by sheer luck, the rope snagged on a protruding boulder and caught both climbers. McIlwraith sailed a hundred feet before jolting to a stop, rupturing ligaments in his knee and seriously injuring his hip. The team extricated themselves and limped back home, but not before a donkey that McIlwraith was riding bucked him off three times. “Bloody beast was lucky to live through that,” he says.

He continued climbing, but success on the high peaks started mixing too often with misfortune. He survived three avalanches, rock fall on the Matterhorn, and heard about friends who had died climbing. He considered quitting the sport. However, a year after McIlwraith joined Colorado State in 1979, his brother died from a heart attack at the age of 30, and that helped change his mind. “I  rethought my purpose,” he says, and kept climbing. His brother’s death made him realize there weren’t enough hours in a lifetime to get it all done.

Osteoarthritis just another challenge

Over the years, his hip injury advanced into the insidious realm of osteoarthritis. The irony of being a leading expert in arthritis and having that degenerative malady didn’t escape him, but it wasn’t  until a trip in 2001, to the Lotus Flower Tower, that he knew he’d need a new hip. The climb in thick mist was successful, but the pain of humping 80-pound packs to the base of the tower finally forced him to look into bionic replacement parts.

“I found a good doctor who does hockey players,” McIlwraith says. “He told me, ‘I don’t think you’ll need another hip once I’m done,’ which was all I needed to hear.” In 2005, the renowned veterinary surgeon and joint-repair specialist was under the knife, receiving a new hip.

Equal passion about high peaks, horse joints

McIlwraith’s laptop now shows the beautiful Diamond, or East Face, of Longs Peak in Colorado, where he’s done some climbs. In fact, photos of his latest climbing on Devils Tower in Wyoming this fall aren’t on his computer yet. Maybe, when he has time out of his 48-hour day, he’ll include them in a slide show he’s presented for years on climbing and osteoarthritis.

There isn’t much irony in a skilled surgeon with an artificial hip who talks with equal passion about high peaks and horse joints. After all, Wayne McIlwraith is just helping animals and humans move easier in a world that keeps him constantly occupied, always on the move himself.

Written by Paul Miller.  Originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Winter 2008-2009.