Tommy Callahan's military and work career left him with severely damaged ankles, but replacements have him living a pain-free life.

New Ankle Gives Vet A Spring in His Step

Years of jumping out of airplanes as a U.S. Army 82nd Airborne paratrooper and a workplace injury had taken its toll on Tommy Callahan, 62, of Suisun City.

“I’ve been in pain for almost 30 years and — between my back and my ankles — just got used to it around a 10 level,” he confessed. “I just pushed through it. You know how it is with life, you have kids, a job, and you just keep going.”

But today he’s living a nearly pain-free life, thanks to ankle replacement surgery he never thought was even remotely possible.

Tommy’s workplace injury, suffered in 1997, involved a severely twisted right ankle, with torn cartilages, tendons and a hairline fracture. The surgical repair did not work, in fact, it made things worse, he said. “Everything went wrong and it was just not the same after that.”

Then, his work as an elevator technician — bending, stooping and going up and down ladders — took a toll on his back, requiring corrective surgery about two years ago. “After that surgery, I didn’t have pain in my back anymore, but I sure did feel my ankles!”

By this time he could barely walk a half block. “I’d have to stop and lean on something, or sit to relieve the pain in my ankles. It was quite a chore. And being sedentary, I was gaining weight.” It was time to see what could be done.

“It’s like night and day. It feels like I can do anything now! I’m just amazed at my range of motion and how far I can walk.”

Tommy Callahan, NorthBay Health patient

His NorthBay Health primary care physician, Douglas Freeman, M.D., referred him to NorthBay Health Orthopedics, and Kevin Miller, D.P.M. After reviewing the X-rays, “Dr. Miller asked me how I was even walking,” Tommy recalled.

“When I first saw him, he had pretty significant bilateral post-traumatic ankle arthritis, definitely a result of his work life, as well as his military service,” Dr. Miller explained. “Usually the military airborne guys have multiple injuries to their ankles, and he definitely fit the bill with this.”

In Tommy’s case, the cartilage that serves as a cushion to protect the joint had broken down, resulting in a painful bone-on-bone grinding sensation. The condition can be treated with either an ankle fusion or an ankle replacement.

In ankle fusion, the damaged ankle bones are fastened together with metal plates and screws, eventually fusing into one combined bone. It successfully relieves arthritic pain, but reduces the ankle’s mobility.

In an ankle replacement, the ends of the damaged bones are removed and replaced with an artificial joint made of plastic and metal. It helps the ankle retain more movement and offers better stability.

“With his active lifestyle, the ankle replacement seemed a better option,” Dr. Miller said. “I did tell him that he would never run, but he was okay with that.”

“When Dr. Miller showed me a model of the ankle, and explained what he could do, I was flabbergasted. I did not know a replacement was even possible. Without hesitation, I said, ‘let’s do this!’”

He had the surgery on his right ankle in May, 2023. “Dr. Miller is a total gentleman. He answers all your questions, has a great bedside manner, and explains everything so well.”

Although there was some post-surgical pain, Tommy said it was nothing compared to what he had been experiencing on a daily level, and his post-surgical recovery was ahead of schedule. “They said I might need two months or so before I could fully use it, but I was walking at a month and a half. My physical therapist was surprised how fast I was moving around on it.”

He used the summer months to complete his recovery and then had surgery to replace the right ankle on Dec. 1.

His recovery the second time around was also smooth. “Before long, I moved from crutches, to a boot, to standing here in my kitchen walking around like nothing. It’s like night and day. It feels like I can do anything now! I’m just amazed at my range of motion and how far I can walk.”

“Tommy did really well after his ankle replacements,” Dr. Miller said. “His postoperative recovery is typical with this type of procedure. Although everyone recovers differently and at a different pace, he is definitely helping himself with his activity and total compliance of what I asked of him. He has been a great patient, and I feel lucky that he chose me to perform his surgeries.”

Now Tommy looks toward to returning to all the hobbies he used to enjoy, such as hiking, camping, fishing, and riding motorcycles. “It will be great to do everyday things. I just won’t be going up any ladders!”

“The whole experience has been amazing, just short of a miracle,” he added. “It was 30 years of pain, gone. A life-changing experience.”

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