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YOUR HEALTH: Building a new ankle in a safer way

An ankle replacement surgery that cuts the risks of infections and lasts 15 years or more

BALTIMORE — At one time, foot and ankle specialists would discourage patients with arthritis from getting a total joint replacement because of the risk of infection and problems with early systems.

Those patients had few choices except to fuse the joint and lose mobility. 

Now, a new design for one ankle replacement system means patients, even those with severe deformities, have more options. 

"I always wore spurs," Wendy Rubin-Fitzgerald recalled while telling her story.

She lived her entire life around horses and at one time she was competing in national arenas.

But during a trail ride, a snake crossed her horse's path, causing him to spook, throwing Wendy off.

"I didn't land flat. I landed on my ankle and the spur just trashed it."

 Wendy knew as soon as she tried to stand she was in trouble.

"That step was the most painful, and it was also crunch, crunch."

Ankle replacements in the U.S. more than doubled last year due to advances in ankle implants, or prostheses.

Dr. Lew Schon is an orthopedic surgeon and co-inventor of the Zimmer Total Ankle Replacement.

"All my cases are lateral approach," he explained.

"We cut the outer bone, position it, get everything property aligned, and correct the deformity." 

The Zimmer's design is different from other companies and is made from a material called tantalum.

"That is a very special metal that inspires bone to grow into it," said Dr. Schon.

Wendy had a rod holding her ankle together at first, but then had the Zimmer Replacement Ankle four years ago.

She no longer rides but is active on her trainer's farm with very few restrictions.

"He told me if I took care of it, I'd have it for life."

Dr. Schon says robotic testing on the Zimmer suggests the replacement will last about 15 years before the plastic parts in the ankle might need to be replaced.

Early tests are encouraging.

While is patients can resume many of their activities, Dr. Schon recommends his patients don't run on the ankle to extend the life of the replacement.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.