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An avid cyclist, Dr. Michael Schutte of Northern Rockies Orthopedics has a pretty apt metaphor to describe his 30 years as a prominent knee specialist and orthopedic surgeon in Missoula.

“It’s been a great ride,” he says.

Schutte was the first sports medicine-specialized orthopedist in Montana and has performed over 1,000 ACL reconstructive surgeries on everyone from world-class cyclists to Griz athletes to national championship-winning javelin throwers to everyday people who just want to be able to walk without pain.

Schutte recently announced that he is leaving Community Medical Center, where NRO is located, to take a job teaching medical residencies in Lafayette, Louisiana, his native state. He will be passing the torch, so to speak, teaching young medical students how to do things the right way.

“It’s a great opportunity for me and it’s the right time,” Schutte said.

Over his three decades of work, Schutte has been recognized as one of the preeminent knee specialists in the region and the walls of his office are adorned with pictures of people who have thanked him for his work.

Ronn Watt sent Schutte a picture of himself posing with a giant trophy elk.

“Six hours of packing out, thanks for the great knee,” Watt wrote on the picture.

Skip Horner, a world-renowned mountaineer and adventure guide from the Bitterroot Valley, sent Schutte a picture of himself atop Mount Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica.

“I guided two clients up there less than a month after you repaired my knee,” Horner wrote. “This is an 8-day venture at 40 below, pulling sleds from one camp to the next, then climbing steep icefall and headwall to the 16,000’+ summit. I went into this trip with confidence in my leg, and I was not disappointed. So, thanks again for performing successful surgery on me. You have extended my career, indefinitely I hope, but I’m sure we will meet again.”

Wayne Tompkins sent a picture of himself with a long wooden surfboard next to a beach.

“Thanks Dr. Schutte, from an old surfer for a new knee,” he wrote.

Schutte has mementos from his work with NBA basketball players, Olympic gold-medalist speed skater Bonnie Blair and Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich’s personal trainer.

These thank-you notes are the reason Schutte has been able to maintain his passion and his dedication to his craft for so long.

One of the more innovative things that Schutte has done was to install a complete physical rehabilitation training room next to his office.

“Everybody’s training, everybody’s focused, everybody’s trying to compete for something, and everybody’s in a hurry,” he explained. “There’s so much riding on that. So, the idea was to create a treatment model. We had a team of people providing coordinated care and we really tried to improve the quality of the experience for the patient. And that’s really what I tried to do here. The facility is an extension of that concept.”

Schutte, who worked with several professional sports teams, has modeled his medical treatment after the system they use.

“On a sports team, it’s very common for the athlete, the coach, trainer and the doctor to have their moment together,” he explained. “Everybody’s talking and there’s no miscommunication. It’s very efficient to do it that way. I tried to bring that concept here. Within one house, you have this coordinated care approach, and I think that once patients experience that, they like the quality of the experience. It’s hard to encapsulate this whole ‘my moving and the end of my career here.’ But that was the focus. The focus was to try to just provide patients with that team management experience.”

***

Schutte grew up in a large Catholic family.

“There was a time in my life when I wasn’t a doctor, I was just a college student, just a guy trying to get educated,” he remembered. “I was trying to find my way in the world. Somehow, around my earlier years in college, I decided I wanted to go to medical school. I had three brothers and three sisters and my parents had moderate means, and they said they supported me but if I wanted an education I had to pay for it. So I decided that if I had to jump through all the hoops, I was going to do the best I could with my opportunity.”

Schutte received his orthopedic training in New Orleans, and completed his fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic. He was recruited to come to Missoula in 1985 because there were no sports medicine-specialized orthopedic surgeons in the state at that time.

“There was no one else here, and I was recruited to come here to Community Medical Center for that reason,” he said. “And I’ve been here ever since for the good, the bad and the ugly. I don’t know if this medical model, of having this team approach and having everything in house, was that common then. Let’s just say it was different.”

Sitting in his small office, Schutte credits the people he’s worked with over the years for creating a successful model.

“I’m very proud to have worked with so many great professionals,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve taken care of a lot of wonderful people. I’ve shared their thrills. And I’ve had a lot of thrills.”

Schutte recalls one famous Missoula woman, who he can’t mention by name because health information privacy laws.

“She was trying to take the national championship in javelin throwing for her age group,” he said. “So we took care of her knee. This goes back to the team approach. So, we said, ‘we train javelin throwers’ and we put her in a training program. I don’t think she had ever quite been on that. But you can’t imagine the excitement that we all felt when she came back from that event and said ‘I grabbed that javelin and I threw it as hard as I could throw it.’ And she said it like she was 18 years old. And she said ‘as soon as I let it go off my fingers, I knew it was good’ and when they measured it, she broke the record. I’ve had so many of those experiences.”

Schutte also fondly remembers working on a young Butte High School wrestler who needed knee surgery just nine days before the state championship.

“He won the state championship, but Butte won the overall team championship by three or four points, and it was after the fact that I realized, oh my goodness, there was so much riding on that,” Schutte said.

There is a lot of pressure on sports medicine specialists because everyone has goals like that high school wrestler and everyone wants to know “how fast can you make me whole,” he said.

“Everybody wants their health care provider to give maximum effort,” he explained. “You look back, and yeah, I’ve made mistakes and I wish things could have been done better sometimes. But I really tried to be in the moment with the patient when they needed me to be mindful of what was really happening. And that everybody would put out all that energy in that moment to get the patient where they needed to be. And for me that has been very satisfying to meet that challenge. That’s what it’s all about.”

***

Schutte said he is excited about his new job in Louisiana, and his wife Mary Jo is on board as well. He said he’ll be able to spend more time with his kids.

“It’s a really good move for me,” he said. “I was recruited by them. These are orthopedic surgeons in training, and I’ll be overseeing what they’re doing. I know where they’re trying to go, and the only thing I have to offer them is experience.”

Schutte compared surgery with photography, saying that even the best photographer looks at photos and wishes he or she had done something a little different.

“I’ve made my mistakes with patients, you can always take it to another level, but for the younger surgeons it’s about making sure that they don’t forget that there’s a patient that has life goals, that wants to do something, that wants to be happy, that wants to feel better,” he said. “And you gotta go to the operating room and you gotta be ready to deliver.”

Many of Schutte’s coworkers will be sad to see him go after all he’s done to further their careers.

“He taught me a lot, not just about medicine but about personal care and how to be an all-around good physician,” said Dr. Emily Heid, a foot and ankle specialist at NRO.

Schutte tears up a little when he thinks about his career thus far.

“I mean, I think that in a way I’ve been very lucky,” he said. “I came to a part of the world where I think that my specialty training wasn’t, let’s say, completely understood. So that presented me with difficulties. But at the same time, within difficulty lies opportunity. And it was a great opportunity for me to design an office, build a practice and I really worked with some great people in western Montana. You only get to live your life once, you only get to have one career, so I can’t say what my experience would have been like somewhere else. But when I think about it, I think I was very lucky to have the opportunity to be there for that Butte wrestler, be there for that mountain climber, be there for that cyclist in the moment when they needed somebody to be there. I’m glad I had the answer to the problem they had. I’m going to remember those moments and how lucky I was. It was a great ride.”

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Reporter David Erickson can be reached at david.erickson@missoulian.com.

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