Knee-replacement craftsman helps a brilliant woodworker get back on the trail

Feb. 28, 2019


: Harv Mastalir at work in his Black Hawk shop.
Harv Mastalir at work in his Black Hawk shop. Photos by Cyrus McCrimmon for UCHealth.

Harv Mastalir is a craftsman. For the better part of four decades, he has created works of functional art – it’s furniture, but only in the narrowest sense – in the medium of American hardwoods.

Dr. Andrew Park is also a craftsman. He’s a UCHealth physician, orthopedic surgeon and assistant professor of orthopedics at the CU School of Medicine whose body of work comprises repaired bodies – knees and hips in particular.

A pair of those knees belong to Harv Mastalir. During two surgeries at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital last April and October, Park performed partial knee replacements first on Mastalir’s right, then his left knee. Park’s craftsmanship has made a big difference in Mastalir’s ability to create – and more broadly, live the life he wants to live.

The life he wants to live is an active one. Mastalir, 68, lives and works in Black Hawk, where he has his one-man shop. Hiking is a passion, as is backpacking – that is, taking multi-day trips up and down mountain trails on foot, carrying what he needs on his shoulders. He’s got a long history as an outdoorsman: Mastalir has sea-kayaked in Alaska and Antarctica; he was a climbing instructor and led backpacking trips; and he has served as a volunteer mountain rescuer (in this context, he has climbed fourteeners at night).

While Mastalir suspected that shouldering heavy packs up and down mountains had taken an increasing toll on his knees, the alarm bell first rang in December 2017, after delivering furniture he had sawed, carved, planed, joined, stained, and polished. Knee pain had already been limiting the amount he could work, which he does mostly on his feet. He hadn’t backpacked in more than a year because of it. The day after that delivery, his right knee seriously hurt. He made an appointment with Dr. Eric McCarty, UCHealth orthopedic surgeon, sports medicine specialist and associate professor of orthopedics at the CU School of Medicine.

Mastalir with one of his works of art, which happens to also be a chair.
Mastalir with one of his works of art, which happens to also be a chair.

“All I had to do was look at the X-rays and I knew I was in trouble,” Mastalir said. McCarty had ordered X-rays of both knees. “When he put them up, he said, ‘Now, which one is bothering you?’ I knew that was a bad sign.”

McCarty gave Mastalir a cortisone shot and a referral to his colleague Park (McCarty does lots of knee surgeries, but he doesn’t do replacements).

Different media, similar approaches

Before Mastalir creates a piece of furniture, he sits down with the person commissioning the work – ideally where the furniture will ultimately reside – to understand the surrounding space, the prospective uses (if it’s a dining room table, how many people will it host?), and exactly what the client needs.

So too it was with Park. Mastalir’s knees being portable, the house call was unnecessary. But Park needed to understand not only the nature of Mastalir’s knee pain and the extent of the underlying arthritis, but also how Mastalir aimed to use his reconstructed knee.

“This is a surgery to alleviate pain and restore function,” Park said. “When people with bad arthritis get to the point where they tell me, ‘I can’t live life the way I want to because of my knee,’ then a knee replacement can be a great option.”

Mastalir is already out walking; once the snow melts, Mastalir aims to be hiking and backpacking again – pain-free thanks to repaired knees.
Mastalir is already out walking; once the snow melts, Mastalir aims to be hiking and backpacking again – pain-free thanks to repaired knees.

Such context matters. Park recognized that Mastalir was exceptionally healthy and aimed to resume his mountain endeavors. Mastalir’s pain and his arthritis was limited to the same areas of both knees – the medial compartments. He was a candidate for partial, rather than total, knee replacements.

“If a patient can point to the pain with one finger, and I can point to the arthritis on the X-ray in the same location with one finger, I think that patient will be happy with a partial knee replacement,” Park said. “The benefit of the partial knee replacement is that we resect minimal bone and preserve all of the ligaments, resulting in a knee that feels much more natural than a total knee replacement. My ultimate goal is for the patient to forget that he or she had a knee replacement in the first place.”

Right, left

Park performed the right knee replacement surgery on April 13, 2018. Mastalir never considered having both knees done at once, he said.

a photo of Dr. Andrew Park
Dr. Andrew Park

“You want to have one good leg,” he said, “Even if that good leg is a bad leg.”

Mastalir recognized a kindred spirit in his surgeon. He noted how Park had meticulously planned for the surgery using computer templating.

With woodworking, Mastalir said, “About the only thing you can do fast is ruin something.”

Following the surgery, Mastalir recognized the look on Park’s face as the surgeon examined a postoperative X-ray. Later, he told Park: “When I’m in the shop and I get a joint to fit together perfectly, I get this look on my face. And I knew this surgery went well because that was the look on your face when you showed me the X-ray.”

With the help of a visiting physical therapist, Mastalir focused on rehabilitating his knee for the better part of six weeks. His motivation to get back to work – and back to the trails – was only part of what drove him.

“No matter how good the surgery is, what you get out of it is what you put into it. It’s up to you – you determine the outcome of the surgery,” Mastalir said.

Having recovered with the help of formal physical therapy and his independent efforts, he backpacked up to Heart Lake not far from Winter Park in the summer. It’s out-and-back, four-and-a-half miles one-way, with 2,000 feet of elevation gain – rated “hard” on, but a short walk for the likes of Mastalir. But on the way back down, “it became apparent that, if I was ever going to do this again, I had to do the other knee.”

Shavings from wood carvings
While they work in different media, Mastalir’s and Dr. Andrew Park’s crafts have more in common than one might think.

On Oct. 24, 2018, Park performed a partial knee replacement for the other knee, again at UCHealth Broomfield Hospital, which was more convenient for Mastalir. The surgery was timed such that Mastalir could be back out on the trails come summer. By now, Park and Mastalir had developed a mutual respect for their respective specialties. “We even use some of the same tools,” Mastalir said.

‘Not normal’

As of early February, Mastalir’s rehabilitation has morphed into training. He’s at the local community center’s gym almost every day, walking two-and-a-half miles, doing leg presses and then walking up and down a 26-step stairwell six times, forwards, backwards, and sideways. Forwards, he goes up two steps at a time, something he hadn’t been able to do in years.

Given that Park does knee and hip replacements every week, they’re routine to him. That’s a good thing for a surgeon – or any other craftsman, for that matter. Reps hone expertise. Mastalir had a different perspective. Every time Park reconstructs someone’s knee, he told the surgeon, “you’re changing somebody’s life. And that’s not normal. Maybe it’s common – but it’s a really big deal to the person who gets it.”

Park’s craftsmanship came at a pivotal moment, Mastalir added.

“I’m 68, old enough that, if you don’t use it, you lose it. And I was about ready to have this big, downward slide, because if I can’t walk, then I’m not going to be exercising like I’m used to, and then my health is going to go downhill, and I’m going to lose everything,” Mastalir said.

“I just got my life back.”

About the author

Todd Neff has written hundreds of stories for University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth. He covered science and the environment for the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, and has taught narrative nonfiction at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ted Scripps Fellowship recipient in Environmental Journalism. He is author of “A Beard Cut Short,” a biography of a remarkable professor; “The Laser That’s Changing the World,” a history of lidar; and “From Jars to the Stars,” a history of Ball Aerospace.