1 of 3
Mike Terry, Deseret News
Dr. Chris Peters, left, talks with Dr. Robert Ballard during a hip replacement surgery at the University of Utah Orthopaedic Center. Ballard was familiarized with the new advances in orthopaedic surgery.

Dr. Chris Peters was not yet an orthopedic surgeon when Dr. Robert Ballard retired from a long, successful career in the field 20 years ago. Ballard's vision was going at the time — a death knell for a surgery career that had spanned more than four decades. He kept working for a while, but could no longer operate, and that was his passion.

But thanks to a recent cornea transplant, Ballard, who is 89, was back in scrubs Monday in the operating room at the University of Utah Orthopaedic Center, watching Peters replace the knee of a woman who has osteoarthritis.

"Fairly routine" in 2008 is very different from surgeries Ballard performed decades ago. Peters has seen many changes in his own 15-year career. "I think he'll see a much more refined operation."

The procedure was expected to last about 90 minutes; such a surgery in Ballard's day easily spanned several hours. Tonight, the patient will stand up. Tomorrow, she'll walk. In a couple of days, she'll go home.

When Ballard practiced, patients were confined to bed for several days, before bearing weight. A patient with a knee replacement — still relatively new and already changing when he left the OR — could be hospitalized for a week or more.

The medications, the technologies, the implements all have changed. But Peters was as excited "to pick someone's brain who was training and practicing during the time joint replacement was being developed" as Ballard was to see where the road he stepped off of has led.

Ballard graduated in 1944 with the first four-year medical class at the U. Afterward, he enlisted in the military and served in Germany, then returned to Utah and toiled at an amputation hospital in Brigham City. Those experiences changed his career plans from cardiology to orthopedics.

Next, the Draper boy went to California, where his brother Ross had an obstetrics practice. He spent a half-century in San Bernardino, funding a rehabilitation hospital that bears this name, among other charities.

He loved surgery, especially hips and knees, but too often hated the results in those early years when, before total hip replacement, surgeons sometimes could only provide relief by cutting nerves — and even that relief didn't last long enough. They were quick to adopt any improvements.

In the late '70s, Ballard developed cataracts and underwent surgeries that don't compare to results today. He had a cornea transplant in '76. At one point, a detached retina sidelined him for a year. The eye problems just piled on and, eventually, still in robust health, he retired because he simply couldn't see well enough.

Four years ago, his house burned in a forest fire. His wife and brother had died by then, as had many medical associates. He returned to Draper and rented a little house across the street from where he'd grown up, halfway between his son in Idaho and his daughter in Colorado. He was blessed, he said, that his parents, Ross Day and Ruby Henriod Ballard, didn't have much money from their poultry business, but taught their 10 kids the value of hard work and the necessity of giving to others. He didn't bother to replace most of what he'd lost in the fire.

With money made in the stock market after retiring, Ballard has endowed two full-ride, four-year scholarships to the U. School of Medicine. Aside from recipients being legal Utah residents, he doesn't put other restrictions on his giving — never has. He hopes the scholarships let future doctors pick their specialties based on talent and choice, without the specter of huge debt chiming in.

While medicine's technical advances please him — the vaccine for polio is still the No. 1 "Wow!" moment of his career, he said, with antibiotics a close second — he views American health care as a flawed system. Doctors are too rushed. Recently, a doctor gave him a physical without even having him remove his shirt. He blames the HMO concept — six patients in an hour. "You can't do it that way and do good medicine."

Last December, a surgeon at Moran Eye Center did another cornea transplant on Ballard and restored "quite a bit of vision. I'm still improving." When he walked into the operating room on Monday, he could see what was going on.

Most of the time, he devours books, his primary love is history. And he tracks his stocks. An up day in the market is good news for U. medical students and, he hopes, the future of medicine in America.

E-mail: [email protected]