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Published in CenterView on January 27, 2014
Geissler examines the wrist of James Wilson of Gulfport.
Geissler examines the wrist of James Wilson of Gulfport.

Orthopedist’s ‘brainchildren’ help patients recover active lifestyles

By Gary Pettus

Often, it starts with a simple sketch crawling spontaneously out of Dr. William Geissler’s imagination and across a scrap of paper.

Then, the evolution of his idea leapfrogs into reality, from a primitive scrawl to sturdy plastic and metal mockups to an actual device supporting a flesh-and-bone arm as it slings a touchdown pass on ESPN.

Thanks to Geissler’s skills as a surgeon and inventor, the list of once-damaged athletes who continue to pass, pitch and punch is long; but there are also everyday folks who are equally grateful that they can just keep walking or making a living.

“That is a gifted man,” said Tom Burkes of Carthage, whose knees and shoulder have thrived under the hand of Geissler. “He has found his true calling.”

A professor of orthopedic surgery at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and the designer or co-designer of several orthopedic implants on the market today – including a total-shoulder replacement system – Geissler had plenty of free time to ponder his calling while growing up.

“Boring. Windy,” he said, describing the landscape around Topeka, Kan.

The South, by contrast, seemed “more colorful,” he said. “It has trees and hills.”

Approximately 30 years ago, as a young medical student home visiting his parents, he made a decision.

“I arrived in Kansas City and the wind chill was something like 99 below zero,” he said. “Then I went back to school and landed in New Orleans, where it was 72. That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to live in Kansas anymore.”

His school was at Tulane University, a place he had chosen after he had literally and figuratively taken its temperature.

“It was a good medical school,” he said, “and it was in the South. I love the culture here, the food.”

Climate aside, it was during his youth in Kansas that Geissler warmed to the idea of a medical career.

“I read this Time-Life book about health sciences and had always been interested in science anyway,” he said. “Ever since I was in junior high, I wanted to be a doctor.”

Eventually, as a doctor, he would edit his own book on wrist arthroscopy.

Potentially, in storybook fashion, his high school days could have inspired his career as a healer of broken bones. He played tailback on the football team, ran track and made the wrestling team – offering him plenty of chances to damage his sinew and limbs.

It didn’t happen that way.

“I had some injuries,” he said. “Nothing worth mentioning.”

Athletics, however, did teach him about competition and hard work – the backbone, so to speak, of a career in orthopedic surgery.

One of two children, Geissler was the son of a caterpillar tractor and equipment salesman. He needed scholarships to pay for college – at Washburn University in Topeka, then at Tulane, where he graduated in 1985.

During his medical school rotation, he discovered the pleasures of orthopedic surgery and its link to sports medicine – a “perfect fit” for the physician desiring instant gratification, relatively speaking.

“You handle a lot of broken bones, which you can fix fairly quickly,” he said.

It was in Jackson that Geissler fixed many of his first broken bones. As a fourth-year medical student, he spent part of his rotation at UMMC and completed an internship and residency here. Then he left – first for an orthopedic trauma fellowship in Aarau, Switzerland, then for a one-year fellowship in advanced arthroscopy in sports medicine in Richmond, Va.

But he came back, and has been on the UMMC faculty full-time since 1992.

Although Geissler loves to travel, he has no reason to visit Kansas anymore, he said. One of his mentors, his father, is now deceased, as is his mother.

Years ago, he found another mentor, during a second fellowship, in hand and upper extremity surgery at UMMC: Dr. Alan Freeland.

“He was a star from the beginning, as a physician and a surgeon,” said Freeland, now retired. “He is also very bright, very creative. He has designed plates and screws that hold bones in place that had never been used before.”

Many of Geissler’s “brainchildren” are implants meant to simplify surgical reconstruction, making life easier for the patient, including Burkes, the Carthage man whose shoulder he replaced in November.

“I could barely lift my arm before surgery,” Burkes said. “You wouldn’t believe the range of motion I have now, and with no pain.

“He wants to heal you. I do admire that in the man.”

Jeff Hodges, a UMMC physical therapist, has worked with Geissler for approximately 17 years at high school football games, BMX racing tracks, minor league baseball parks (Geissler is also the Mississippi Braves’ orthopedic physician), rodeo arenas and more.

“When somebody comes to me after seeing him, they’ve had a good evaluation,” Hodges said. “I truly know he’s done a good job. That makes my job easier when they walk through my door.”

Working with a variety of engineers on his designs, Geissler also tries to make his own job easier, he said.

“It’s very gratifying that on a day when you do 10 surgeries, five may be implants I designed or co-designed.”

On Election Day 1996, a man arrived at UMMC’s emergency room after a wreck that nearly killed him. Using plates of his own design, Geissler treated Gov. Kirk Fordice’s broken shoulder blade and collarbone.

In 2007, the Mississippi Legislature commended him for his “fabulous” invention, the Turbo Plate, a device that helps hold a broken collarbone in place “due to its sleek S-shaped design.” The idea flew out of his head while he was flying to Portland, Ore.

Dr. Hank Sherman, a primary care sports medicine specialist for the University of Mississippi, has worked with Geissler for approximately five years, helping to mend such famous limbs or ligaments as the right throwing shoulder of quarterback Bo Wallace, the ACL of basketball standout Chris Warren and the wrist of defensive end Greg Hardy.

“I once asked him about a specific device he had designed,” Sherman said. “He said he was in the middle of surgery one day repairing a clavicle. And it dawned on him that what he had to use doesn’t work the way it should, so he just sat down and drew one that did.”