Published on February 13, 2020

Essentia Health Patient Story: Hip replacement couldn’t keep Morales from Birkebeiner

Essentia patient, Steven Morales cross country skiing in the Birkebeiner

The American Birkebeiner debuted in 1973, eventually morphing into North America’s largest cross-country ski race. One of the constants over the years has been Steve Morales gliding across the finish line in downtown Hayward.

Morales is looking to complete his 40th Birkie on Feb. 22. Race No. 39, however, almost didn’t happen thanks to a broken right hip Morales suffered while roller-skiing in September 2018. A nasty spill on asphalt jeopardized his participation last winter, but there he was at the starting area in Cable, ready to race. Morales would finish fifth in his 70-74 age group, covering 50 kilometers in 3 hours, 49 minutes and 28.8 seconds.

It had only been five months since Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center orthopedic surgeon Brad Edgerton fully replaced Morales’ right hip with an artificial one. Several factors prompted the swift recovery. Morales always has been remarkably active, and “he didn’t want this injury to interfere with his quality of life,” Dr. Edgerton said. That motivation, combined with Morales’ unflinching optimism, kept him moving forward.
Then there was the operation itself. Dr. Edgerton performed anterior hip surgery, which spares the muscles surrounding the hip. It’s a more sophisticated — and less invasive — procedure. Traditionally, hip replacements involved cutting the muscles, which extended recovery times.

“This surgery itself is designed to facilitate recovery,” Dr. Edgerton said.

Morales was walking mere hours after surgery. He left the hospital the following day and was hiking and mountain biking three weeks later. He was back on skis by mid-November. Morales started with shortened workouts as he regained both his physical fitness and confidence. He had to trust himself, especially when pushing off with his right leg. That mental barrier was perhaps more significant than any physical ones; even right away, Morales said, he experienced very little pain in the hip.

Exercising three weeks after having a hip replaced isn’t typical, Dr. Edgerton admits. A more normal timeline might have a patient walking full-time 6-8 weeks post-surgery.

“I certainly won’t be promising most people they could do that,” the doctor said. “He sets a pretty high bar for recovery.”

Morales kept building toward the 2019 Birkie, eventually finishing his 39th race — to go with the two shorter-distance Kortelopets he has skied with his daughter at the event. At 71, he remains a regular on the trails near his home, just west of Hayward.

“It’s an unusual day when I’m not out there,” he said.

Morales loves to cross-country ski, and called the Birkie “sort of the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae.”

He and his wife of 45 years, Melisa, owned a ski and bike shop from 1976-2005.

“I was fortunate to turn my avocation into my occupation,” Morales said.

He remains thankful for the quality care Dr. Edgerton and his staff provided. Because Morales was so fit, his muscles so strong, he was able to bounce back quickly. At St. Mary’s, orthopedic surgeons specialize in specific joints. Dr. Edgerton, for example, focuses strictly on hips and knees, and he performs more than 300 such replacements annually. It’s a strategic approach — rather than be good at many things, they aspire to be great at one or two things.

Eighteen months later, Morales says the new hip is just as good as the old one.

“I don’t even think about it much anymore,” he said. “Mostly, it works just like the old one did. Dr. Edgerton did a great job.”

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