Dr. David Kozak, Total Shoulder Replacement – Shoulder Arthroplasty

David Kozak is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Fort Lewis College…and a weekend adrenaline junkie. He has been an avid rock climber for over 45 years, braving the challenge of scaling giant boulders and mountains. Also an avid mountain biker, David has been zipping through adventuresome terrain for over 20 years.

Despite the thrills and excitement of rock climbing, the sport also takes a tremendous toll on the body. Rock climbing requires both strength and mobility and can often cause wear-and-tear to the shoulder, knee, and hip joints. Unfortunately, David had to learn this risk the hard way…

In 1986, David fractured 6 vertebrae in his back after a devastating fall during a climb. However, David did not let this setback stop him from what he loves! After a full year of recovery, he was back on the mountain, climbing again.

Photo Credit: Tyler Nelson
Climbing in Spain

A few years ago, David noticed the increased stress on his joints, especially in his shoulder. He began to experience the classic symptoms of shoulder arthritis: pain, aching, crepitus, and a decrease in the range of motion. David is a determined climber, and despite his pain, continued his active lifestyle to his best efforts. Finally, the increased intensity and duration of his arthritis symptoms became too much for him, and he was forced to stop climbing altogether.

“I stopped doing what I wanted, and I even had to stop climbing,” David reported. “I wasn’t happy about that.”  David knew his shoulder had had enough, but he wasn’t willing to quit rock climbing forever, given his passion for the sport. Instead, he started researching innovative, cutting-edge treatment options. He knew he had degenerative joint disease (glenohumeral osteoarthritis), and he knew he needed to seek treatment for his shoulder arthritis. Kozak said he was resigned and knew he needed a shoulder replacement. However, he pushed it off, dreading the process, the recovery, and the possibility that even after a surgery, he still might not be able to return to climbing.

After consulting with influential friends in the orthopedic field, David was referred to Dr. Peter Millett at The Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado. “I wanted the best,” he said. “I wanted to be able to climb again and I needed to have the best outcome,” Kozak states. “I knew what I was looking at, I knew I needed a shoulder replacement. I wasn’t going to settle for anything but the best surgeon to do the replacement and everything in my research pointed to Dr. Millett.”

On December 3rd, 2020, David underwent a Total Shoulder Replacement, or Shoulder Arthroplasty, with Dr. Peter Millett. After surgery, Dr. Millett told David: “You weren’t kidding, you really did need a shoulder replacement!”  Dr. Millett informed David that the bone-on-bone degeneration and arthritis in his shoulder had caused the head of his humerus (upper arm bone) to be so badly worn that is was cue-ball smooth. Dr. Millett said he rarely sees a humerus worn that badly!

Photo Credit: Andy Gresh
Petzoldt Ridge, Grand Teton Mountains

Along with the shoulder arthroplasty, Dr. Millett relocated David’s biceps tendon in a procedure called a biceps tenodesis. David could tell right away that he had made the perfect choice for a surgeon. “Surgery was not as bad as I had anticipated,” he said. “I had very little pain and right after surgery could feel that I had a better range of motion. I had full mobility within a month. I am still seeing weekly improvement.”

The surgery with Dr. Millett was just the beginning of David’s journey to full recovery. David remained diligent in following Dr. Millett’s post-surgery protocol, attending intensive physical therapy, and not pushing his healing shoulder past its capabilities. David knew that physical therapy was the key to turning Dr. Millett’s great surgical skill into a fantastic recovery. “No one likes physical therapy,” he says, “But I’m determined to get back to rock climbing and I need complete range of motion and strength to do that.”

After David Kozak’s 6-week check-up at the Steadman Clinic, he texted Dr. Millett to tell him how much he appreciated his skill and expertise. “What impressed me the most,” David says, “was Dr. Millett’s modesty. He told me it was a team effort, and he was just one member of that team.”  That modesty and refusal to take complete credit for a well performed surgery stuck with David. He further praises Dr. Millett’s team: “The level of professionalism of the entire crew made for a wonderful experience.”

David knows that continuing his active lifestyle—rock climbing and mountain biking—will no doubt lead to further orthopedic issues down the road. However, now he knows exactly where he’ll go for treatment when the time comes!

Photo Credit: Andy Gresh
Vestpillaren, The Norwegian Arctic

 – Special thanks to Dr. David Kozak for sharing his story!