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Washington People: Leesa M. Galatz ​​

Galloping through orthopaedic surgery

By Jim Dryden

Leesa M. Galatz, MD, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, performing a post-operative exam on surgery patient Margaret Engelman.

Leesa Galatz was in high school when she first thought she might want to become a physician. Her physics textbook featured special sections and sidebars every few pages that highlighted practical applications for the concepts they were learning in class.

“One of them was about the knee and about how the patella tendon functions like a pulley,” she recalls. “That was one of the more interesting applications of physics I had encountered, and it was, actually, the first time I realized I had an interest in human physiology. It had a big impact on me.”

Always a fan of science classes, she became a physiology major at the University of California, Berkeley, and from there, she went on to medical school.

Growing up in Las Vegas, she also was an accomplished athlete, but although she admits she frequently was exposed to orthopedics and physical therapy due to the “bumps and bruises” of competition, it wasn’t sports injuries that led her to orthopaedic surgery. Rather, she picked the specialty while a student at the George Washington University School of Medicine mainly because it was restorative in nature.

“The idea of restoring function was the draw for me,” she says. “I also liked treating injured people, as opposed to sick people. For me, it was a better fit.”

Shouldering her workload

Galatz, an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, became a shoulder and elbow specialist. She directs the department’s Shoulder and Elbow Fellowship program, and her research focuses on the basic science of tendon healing.

The rotator cuff in the shoulder is her main target. It’s a group of tendons and muscles that connect the upper arm to the shoulder blade. The tendons stabilize the shoulder, and the muscles allow it to rotate.

As we get older, the tissue often breaks down, and when that happens, tears can occur.

“We see it in a lot of people 50 and over, and in most, the problems are caused by degenerative changes that occur with time,” she says. “We also see it in athletes and younger people who have had a traumatic shoulder injury, but common, everyday, middle-aged people make up the bulk of those we treat for rotator cuff disease.”

While many can be treated with a repair, some tears are too chronic for repair. She’s also added a new procedure to help some of those patients, performing muscle transfer operations when rotator cuff injuries can’t be fixed with a standard approach.

Galatz is one of the only surgeons in the world doing the operation.

“It was developed for patients with nerve injuries,” she explains. “Having irreparable rotator cuff damage is very similar, so I wondered if perhaps the technique might work in my patients, too.”

Previously, Galatz had abandoned a different muscle-transfer operation because its long-term results were not as good as she would have liked. She hasn’t yet completed one-year, follow-up exams with all of the patients who have had the new muscle transfer surgery, but she says the results appear much better.

“Dr. Galatz is enormously innovative, and she matches her creativity with exceptional technical skill,” says Richard H. Gelberman, MD, the Fred C. Reynolds Professor and head of orthopaedic surgery. “She is a world-class shoulder surgeon and a true international leader in the field of shoulder and elbow surgery.”

During the muscle-transfer operation, she takes the lower part of the trapezius muscle, which runs from the base of the skull to the shoulder and down the middle of the back, and moves it so that it can perform functions once done by the rotator cuff.

“It’s a big muscle,” Galatz says. “The upper and middle parts of the trapezius stabilize the shoulder blade, so we leave them in place. But we can borrow the lower part without really affecting function.”

She says patients quickly gain improved shoulder function after the operation.

“They’re doing very well, and most have improved quite a bit,” she says. “Soon we will complete our last round of one-year follow-up exams, and at that point I hope we’ll be able to say ‘officially’ how well they are doing.”

Morgan horses

Galatz and her younger sister, Lara, grew up in Las Vegas. Now, a it’s city of more than 2 million people, but in her youth there were only a few hundred thousand people who lived in the city that made 24-hour service the standard. For her, going away to college meant adjusting to not being able to get groceries at midnight.

“There really were no restrictions on when you could do things,” she explains. “So when I moved to California and things actually closed at 9 o’clock, I couldn’t believe it. I had never lived in a place where you couldn’t get Chinese food at 3 in the morning if you wanted to.”

Leesa Galatz, MD, rides her horse, VVM Dare to Dream, in a competition in August 2011 in Santa Barbara, Calif. 

Las Vegas also is within a short drive of mountains and other outdoor attractions. They provided her with opportunities to hike or to kayak on Lake Mead or the Colorado River. So that’s what she did growing up … when she wasn’t riding horses.

Her mother, Elaine, had grown up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and from the time she was a child, she had lived with horses. Her daughter inherited that love of equine companionship, and at the age of 7, the younger Galatz began taking riding lessons.

“My father, Neil, was an attorney, and he had done some legal work for my teacher, and she was paying him back by giving me riding lessons,” Galatz explains. “Later, she wanted to move, but she still owed him some money, so to settle things, she gave him a horse. That’s how I got my first horse.”

She also started riding in shows, and she hasn’t ever stopped. Galatz won seven Grand National Championships during the 1980s, riding a breed known as Morgan horses and riding in a style called Saddle Seat.

“The horses carry their heads high, and they naturally have a big, high-stepping gait,” she says. “Saddle Seat is a type of riding that facilitates that. It’s very different than jumping.”

As she and her sister rode in horse shows in Nevada and California, eventually Galatz’s parents got interested in breeding Morgan horses. When she was in high school, they started their own farm. Together the Galatz family bred, raised, and showed their horses on a national level. While today the numbers are fewer than they have been in the past, the farm is still operating, and the family is raising about 20 horses in suburban Las Vegas.

Galatz also keeps a horse in St. Louis. She says she tries to ride about twice each week, getting to the barn one evening during the week and again on Saturday.

“It’s not so much a hobby as a lifestyle,” she says. “It’s kept me very close to my family because I still show with my mom. I have always gone home to practice for a few weekends each summer. I think if we didn’t have the horses, I wouldn’t have seen my parents nearly as much as I have over the years.”

Family time

Leesa Galatz and her son, Ryan, on a short break from riding their bikes.

Galatz and her husband, David Finlay, MD, have a 9-year-old son, Ryan. So when she’s not treating patients or riding horses, she spends a lot of her time at karate tournaments and soccer games. Ryan also is beginning to run track.

That’s probably a good thing because Galatz and Finlay both are runners. The three also are avid cyclists. Last summer’s vacation was a family cycling trip in Europe. Mom and dad peddled, while Ryan, who was only 8 at the time, rode in a bike trailer behind them.

“We’re not daredevils,” she says. “We just like to enjoy the scenery.”