May 19, 2011 -- When his alarm clock rings at 5 a.m., Dr. Richard Rothman can't wait to get up and go to work. In a typical week, the Philadelphia-based orthopedic surgeon replaces about 20 hips and knees. The procedure allows people with arthritis to keep leading productive lives into old age -- an opportunity that Rothman, 74, considers a privilege.
"I love going to work. And I really believe people should keep working as long as they can," Rothman said. "It's good for you!"
Arthritis is the most common cause of disability among adults in the United States, limiting the lives of nearly 21 million people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"If you can't stand or walk, it's very hard to earn a living, keep a family together and enjoy life," Rothman said. "Right at the center of economic and physical well being is that your joints have to work. You wear out [a] hip or knee, and it really limits your ability to stay productive and healthy."
Since performing one of the nation's first total hip replacements 42 years ago, Rothman has replaced more than 25,000 hips and knees. The physically taxing procedure, which swaps the boney joint for a prosthetic usually made of titanium and hard plastic, revolutionized the treatment of arthritis.
"Prior to that, if you have a bad hip or bad knee there were no good options," he said. "You got crutches or a wheelchair."
Joint replacement surgery is on the rise and is expected to keep rising as the population ages. Between 1996 and 2006, the number of total hip and knee replacements increased by 30 percent and 70 percent respectively, according to a CDC report.
"The results are pretty dramatic, complications are pretty rare and recuperation is so fast," Rothman said. "The majority of patients now go home a day or two after surgery and back to work three to four weeks later. It doesn't really disrupt life like it used to."
With the generous gift of a philanthropic patient pleased with his new hips, Rothman founded and built the Rothman Institute in Philadelphia -- an orthopedic center that employs 80 top surgeons performing 18,000 operations a year. The institute, Rothman said, is a dream come true.
On top of replacing hips and knees (a modest Rothman considers himself a "two-trick pony" when it comes to surgery), he also designs prosthetic joints. The self-professed "amateur architect of the hip" is delving into the more cognitive aspects of his craft so he can continue working when the physicality of dislocating joints becomes too much.
"It's a chore for me, and I'm 6 feet tall and in pretty good shape," he said. "And as you age, you become more fragile. You never know."
Rothman considers himself lucky to not have arthritis or other conditions like cancer and heart disease that come with old age.
"It's like running through a mine field," he said of aging. "But you just try to stay healthy, happy and productive -- all of which are interrelated."
The father of four and grandfather of five has plenty to be happy about. And his wife, Marsha, who he met over the operating table when she was working as a nurse, also is happy about her husband's affinity for work.
"She's just thrilled," Rothman said. "She's just terrified that I'll retire and have nothing to do but bug her."