In his first clinical rotation as a new Alaska WWAMI student, Dr. Stephen Tower saw his first operation: a hip replacement procedure, performed by Dr. George Brown in Fairbanks. That experience set the path for Tower’s medical career.
“I liked it right off the bat,” he says, describing orthopedics, joint replacement in particular, as a practice that attracts people who like to build. “It’s fun! You use drills and saws. It’s very concrete; it’s very tangible.”
Tower is an orthopedic surgeon at the Anchorage Fracture and Orthopedic Clinic. He regularly performs joint replacement surgeries for the knees and hips, sometimes doing surgeries for replacements that have failed – a procedure that he says is more difficult than an initial replacement. He does a fair amount of foot and ankle surgery, too.
“There’s a huge amount of innovation, and the problem is we don’t always know whether the innovation is going to work,” he says.
Tower has an interest in which types of joint replacements will work, and which will fail. It’s a job he enjoys.
It’s also a profession that runs in the family. Tower’s parents, Drs. John and Betsy Tower, drove to Alaska in 1954 after completing their medical residency training in the Lower 48. John was one of the first pediatricians at the original Alaska Native hospital in Anchorage, and Betsy, trained in internal medicine, worked in public health for most of her career.
He was inspired by both of them. “They both worked very hard,” Tower says. “My mom’s hours were scheduled, but my dad’s hours were crazy. He was working all the time. There just weren’t that many doctors in town at that point.”
When it came time to choose a career, becoming a doctor, “was probably pretty subliminal,” he says. After training with the Indian Health Service and at Oregon Health Sciences University, he opened his practice in Anchorage in 1992.
Tower also continues another family tradition: giving. Betsy recently endowed the Canadian Studies program at UAA, due to her fascination within Alaska’s proximity to Canada and the country’s history.
Tower gives in many ways. He’s traveled to Kenya, Liberia and Uganda to treat patients. He also teaches doctors modern medical resources how to use a fracture fixation systems that doesn’t require X-ray machines to treat formal and tibial fractures.
He volunteers in his hometown, too, where he offers his services to patients without the means to pay for treatment through Anchorage Project Access – a nonprofit medical provider network for Alaskans who lack insurance or the ability to pay for medical services. Tower also serves as part of the University of Washington clinical faculty, teaching family practice residents.
On top of his clinical, surgical and teaching responsibilities, Tower has served as president of the Anchorage Orthopedic Society, organizing surgeons from Alaska and Outside to exchange experiences of their profession and talk about the latest innovations.
He’s developed a relationship with his undergraduate alma mater, Dartmouth, and its biomedical engineering center, where he sends failed joint replacements to be examined. “I’ve learned a lot through that,” he says.
Tower’s interests in joint replacement technology recently inspired a donation to UAA where he hopes WWAMI and UAA’s engineering and biomedical departments can collaborate with Alaska’s hospitals to start a total joint registry program. When a total joint registry can collaborate with a study of failed joint replacements, Tower and other doctors would be able to learn a lot more about why replacements don’t work, and what can be done to improve success. Other countries have a total joint registry, but the United States does not.
“If we could do that, we’d really be leading the nation,” Tower says.