Crafty doctor

Dennis Abernathie, an orthopedic surgeon, uses his love of carpentry to make surgical tools
Sunday, May 1, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 3:31 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

At first glance, the woodworking shop behind the Abernathie home looks like a guest house. It is a large room with cathedral ceilings that smells of the great outdoors. The tables are covered with blueprints, metal objects and wooden planks.

Dennis Abernathie keeps office hours as an orthopedic surgeon in Columbia. In the evenings and on weekends, he retires to his workshop, making headboards, cabinets, foot stools and other furniture.

He can’t help but bring his medical practice home with him, however. While he works, Abernathie thinks about ways to improve orthopedic surgery and has created several new surgical tools.

The most recent is a retractor that shortens recovery time for patients who have undergone minimally invasive spine surgery.

Abernathie grew up in St. Louis and went to Southwest High School. He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Missouri-Rolla in 1971.

“Although I liked medicine, I wasn’t sure if I’d get into medical school,” Abernathie said. “I thought it was better to be an electrical engineer than a pre-med that didn’t get into medical school.”

Abernathie did get into MU’s medical school with plans to become a family practitioner. He instead fell in love with orthopedics.

He also began to enjoy art, especially printmaking and silk screening. He began collecting woodworking tools and building furniture when he was a surgical intern.

“I liked seeing a picture or developing a concept and then building it,” he said. “To appreciate the artistic process I began to appreciate the tools.”

About three years ago, Abernathie decided to begin making Shaker-style rocking chairs. Searching for a way to make uniformly sized spindles for the rockers led him to his idea of a retractor that would allow a doctor to perform surgery with a minimum of tissue cutting. The result is a device that separates muscle fibers.

Abernathie compares the retractor’s function to opening a Christmas package. With a regular retractor you would tear the wrapping paper. With Abernathie’s device, you can place your hands around the folds of the package and get to the gift.

Bill Auxier, a project manager for Thompson Surgical in Traverse City, Mich., is helping Abernathie develop his retractor for the market.

“One of the most difficult things about creating surgical tools is taking an idea and making it a reality,” Auxier said. “Dennis’ use of models is very helpful in achieving that goal.”

Abernathie is always thinking of ways his hobby could lead to breakthroughs in surgical tools and techniques.

He enjoys showing off the machinery in his shop and boasts that he has the largest chainsaw in the world. His house is filling up with the furniture he makes, including cabinets and tables, but he has yet to make the rocking chair that led to his discovery of the retractor. When the time comes, he has a bucket full of uniformed spindles ready.

“Many projects I start and don’t finish,” he said. “I appreciate the design and process of construction. If I’ve learned what I want, I don’t have to finish. Learning is a lot of fun.”

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