Pocatello surgeon gives patients a new lease on life

Dr. Aaron Altenburg practices in Pocatello at OrthoIdaho. He performs about 700 joint replacements a year – around eight joint replacements each day he’s in surgery.  Courtsey of Dr. Aaron Altenburg

Dr. Aaron Altenburg sits in one of his examination rooms. Lining the walls of his office are patients after their surgeries doing the activities they love. Isabella Alves / ialves@postregister.com

You can make an appointment with Dr. Aaron Altenburg at OrthoIdaho, located at 2240 E Center St. in Pocatello, by calling 208-233-2100.

POCATELLO — Having two orthopedic surgeries early on in life helped draw Dr. Aaron Altenburg into the world of medicine. This, combined with a lifelong fascination with biology, chemistry and the human body, cemented his decision to go into orthopedic surgery.

Altenburg works in Pocatello, performing about 700 joint replacements a year – around eight joint replacements each day he’s in surgery.

Comparatively, the average surgeon did about 46 primary total knee arthroplasties and 32 hip arthroplasties a year in 2016, according to the American Joint Replacement Registry.

Many factors enable Altenburg’s prolific number of surgeries, including a process called templating, which makes his procedures efficient and cost-effective for Portneuf Medical Center.

Before performing surgery, Altenburg takes a series of X-rays of the knee or hip. He imports the X-rays into a program where he is able to create a 3-D model of the knee and get exact sizes he needs for the replacement.

With templating he is able to do surgeries in 40 to 45 minutes instead of 2 to 3 hours because he already knows the replacement size needed and doesn’t have to figure it out mid-surgery.

During surgery, Altenburg also does everything by hand without the assistance of robotics.

In knee surgery, everything is a balancing act. The angle and alignment of every cut has to be precise. It’s all about perfectly balancing an unstable knee.

It’s also this variation in surgeries and new challenges that drew Altenburg into medicine. He wanted to do something different every day, and no two surgeries or patients are alike.

Altenburg has always been a high achiever, a valedictorian of his high school class, but he still hit stumbling blocks along the way.

“I didn’t get in (medical school) the first year, then after four years of medical school I graduated at the top of my class,” Altenburg said. It really made him question “how good are we at picking who is going to be a good doctor.”

Despite this minor hiccup early along the road to his dreams, Altenburg went on to a prestigious fellowship at the Mayo Clinic and even won the prized Coventry Adult Reconstructive Surgery Fellowship Award.

This highly prestigious award is given only to the best of the best at the Mayo Clinic.

Patients from all over the country come to Altenburg for his expertise, but his love of the outdoors drew him to eastern Idaho, where he saw an opportunity to serve the community as a fellowship-trained surgeon.

He decided to practice in Pocatello because it reminds him of the small town he grew up in in Oregon. He’s always been an outdoorsman, even spending time as a whitewater rafting and hunting guide.

“I certainly moved to Idaho because I love the outdoors, I love to hunt, I love to snow machine,” Altenburg said. “If I’m not working I’m spending time outdoors.”

Because he loves it here, Altenburg wants to make eastern Idaho a destination for joint replacement. With his experience at the Mayo Clinic, he saw how a world-class facility can be built almost anywhere.

“If you can build this (Mayo Clinic) in the middle of a soybean field,” he said. “Then why couldn’t I build something in the middle of a potato field in Idaho.”

And the need for such a facility is growing.

The average person is living longer and wearing out their joints. Altenburg predicts that the number of joint replacements is going to escalate three-hundredfold by 2020.

Currently, the average age Altenburg sees people for a joint replacement are between the ages of 60 and 65, but he’s operated on people as young as 17 and all the way into their late 90s.

“We get people back on their feet and enjoying the things they want to do,” Altenburg said. “It’s really gratifying.”

That was the case for Doug Lindley. Lindley is a photojournalist at the Idaho State Journal. His job is active, and includes a lot of bending and kneeling — something that’s hard on the knees.

Lindley was in need of a knee replacement and, after several knee surgeries in the past, he decided to have both knees replaced at the same time.

Before his surgery, Lindley was in a “debilitating situation.” He had to walk down stairs sideways, couldn’t play tennis or ski. It was miserable.

Now, he can work without pain, kneel, go hiking and do the things he loves. “It changed my life,” Lindley said.

Lining the walls of Altenburg’s office are more people with similar stories to Lindley. Some are skiing, running, biking — but all are using their knees and hips.

Altenburg lets patients know that this isn’t an easy fix, and the joint replacement is going to hurt for a while. He said patients are going to hate him two days after the surgery, dislike him at two weeks and then love him in two months.

Altenburg said the replacements give his patients “a new lease on life.”

Reporter Isabella Alves can be reached at 208-542-6711 or follow her on Twitter @IsabellaAlves96.

Reporter Isabella Alves can be reached at 208-542-6711 or follow her on Twitter @IsabellaAlves96.