Knee Replacement: All in a Day’s Work

June 10, 2020

A day’s work for Tim Gallin—a stuntman in more than 300 movies and TV shows—means being beaten up or lit on fire, falling out of a building or crashing a car. But this hard-knock life isn’t possible without two top-functioning knees, assets that the Glen Rock, New Jersey, resident started losing bit by bit during his high school football days.

A decade ago, when Tim was in his mid-50s, he turned to Hackensack University Medical Center for his first total knee replacement, getting him back onscreen with stars who’ve included Tom Hanks and Steve Martin. When his opposite knee started throwing a wrench into his work—preventing him from doubling for Robert DeNiro in “The Irishman” in 2018—Tim again turned to Hackensack.

But this time, the standout got to stand out in another way. Tim became one of 25 Hackensack patients, and one of 115 in the country, to undergo knee replacement surgery using the THINK Surgical Robot. This innovative new technology combines 3-D surgical planning with a computer-assisted robot to more precisely prepare and implant a patient’s joint. Hackensack Meridian Health was among just five prestigious health networks nationwide participating in a successful clinical trial to test the technology, manufactured by California-based THINK Surgical Inc.

For Tim, now 63, taking part in the groundbreaking research felt a lot like his career choice: a calculated risk worth taking.

“Surgery is a daunting concept for most people,” says the father of three grown daughters. “But I’m sure people look at me and think how unnatural it is to willingly fall down a set of stairs or get hit by a car. I look at surgery and say, ‘How do they do that?’ It’s kind of amazing.”

Career-Saving New Knees

Tim got into the stunt business more than 40 years ago, diligently running, weightlifting and playing team sports to stay in shape for physically demanding roles. But the wear-and-tear on his knees that began as a teen only worsened with everyday on-the-job jolts. After having to pull back from on-set duties in the 2010 movie “Salt”—where his limp made it impossible to chase after star Angelina Jolie—Tim underwent left knee joint replacement surgery with Michael Kelly, M.D., chairman of orthopedic surgery at Hackensack.

“I recommend him to everyone I work with, because there’s a wealth of need for orthopedic surgeons in my business,” Tim says. “Dr. Kelly is top-shelf in my book.”

After an incredible turnaround career-wise from his first knee replacement, it was only a matter of time until Tim’s other knee again made certain stunts impossible. By this time, however, Hackensack was part of the national trial testing the Think Surgical Robot, which led to the technology’s approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Unlike traditional knee joint replacement surgery, the newer procedure allows the computer-assisted robot to cut through a patient’s bone prior to implantation of the artificial joint. Combined with 3-D preoperative planning, this enables a more accurate fit of the new knee, says Yair Kissin, M.D., vice chairman of orthopedic surgery who led the trial at Hackensack.

“Surgeons still have to place the actual implant, but being able to put it in a more correct position can lead to better outcomes for patients and less pain because there’s less soft-tissue manipulation during the surgery,” says Dr. Kissin, adding that most of the 1,500 patients who undergo total knee replacement at the hospital each year would be good candidates for the robotic procedure.

An ‘Ideal Patient’

As states continue to carefully reopen the economy, we are focused on ensuring our patients are safe when receiving the care they need. Patient safety is even at the heart of this HealthU article. Typically, we photograph every patient who appears in HealthU. But because this story was planned during the surge of COVID-19, that face-to-face connection would have just been too risky. Our team took a creative approach—replacing photoshoots with custom illustrated portraits of patients.

By all accounts, Tim’s recovery exemplified the robotic surgery’s benefits. He became Dr. Kissin’s first outpatient total joint surgery patient, heading home a little more than 24 hours after the procedure. Subsequent physical therapy was both easier and shorter, as well.

“This really spoke to the efficiency of using the robot,” Tim says. “My pain was minimal for a major surgery like that, and I had about five weeks of physical therapy compared to six or more with my first knee replacement.”

“Tim strikes you right away as someone who can take pain,” Dr. Kissin says, calling him a “perfect candidate” for the new procedure. After knee replacement, most patients stay two nights in the hospital, returning to their jobs in about two months.

“I looked at him the same way I would a young athlete and treated him as such. He has a high-demand job and needs a high-performing knee,” Dr. Kissin adds.

After the trial’s completion, Hackensack was the first hospital in the country to purchase the Think Surgical Robot. The $1 million investment enhances its longstanding reputation for robotic surgeries in the fields of urology, gynecology and general surgery, Dr. Kissin says.

“This adds to an already impressive footprint,” he says. “Not a lot of hospitals can do this. It’s very exciting to see there’s still quite an evolution going on in an operation that’s been around for 30 years.”

Tim’s new left knee revitalized his ability to do stunt work within three months post-surgery, but the experience was also a good opportunity to hit the pause button and contemplate his remaining years in the field.

“I don’t want to crash things anymore, but I was able to have my first scene with Al Pacino—with him standing over my ‘dead’ body,” he says. “In many ways, I have a feeling I’ve been there, done that and accomplished what I set out to do. I’m quite grateful I was able to do it.”

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