Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation

MSC10 5600
1 University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131-0001

Phone: 505-272-2231 (clinic hotline) 505-272-4107 (academic office)
Fax: 505-272-8098

Our Founding Physician

George E. Omer Jr., MD (photo)

George E. Omer Jr., MD
1922 - 2014

Before 1970, options for orthopaedic patients in the state of New Mexico were somewhat limited. Specific areas of expertise provided by the University of New Mexico Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation were years away, and the department itself was a tiny division of the UNM Department of Surgery. However, with the recruitment of the distinguished U.S. Army surgeon Dr. George Omer, the UNM orthopaedic program was soon providing New Mexicans with an unprecedented level of care under the guidance of one of the nation’s most accomplished orthopaedic surgeons.

Originally from Kansas, Omer earned his undergraduate degree from Fort Hays Kansas State University in 1944 in chemistry. After graduation, he enrolled in the University of Kansas School of Medicine. After one year, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served as a second lieutenant in the Medical Administrative Corps. He returned to medical school in 1947, and earned his medical degree in 1950. After serving as a physician in the Korean War, Omer was assigned to Fort Benning Hospital where he stayed until transferring to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio to complete his orthopaedic residency. He continued his career with assignments at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Denver where he was the Chief of the Hand Surgery Unit and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where he served as director of the orthopaedic residency training program.

By the time he retired from the service, Omer was one of the U.S. Army’s most prominent orthopaedic surgeons. In his 20-year military career, he had achieved the ranking of Colonel and earned the United States of American Legion of Merit Medal, but his reputation as an outstanding orthopaedic surgeon was still gaining momentum.

Founding a Program of Excellence

Upon joining UNM’s School of Medicine in 1970, Omer’s first task was to establish a freestanding orthopaedic department. With two other orthopaedic faculty and tremendous support from the UNM School of Medicine, Omer worked quickly to develop and strengthen the growing Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation Department.

Building on his expertise as a nationally recognized hand surgeon, Omer soon established an organized division of hand surgery within the department; it was the first academic division of hand surgery in the nation. Today, UNM Hand Fellowships are highly sought after and consistently recognized as among the best in the country.

In 1973, under Omer’s guidance, the department founded a program in physical therapy to assist with patient rehabilitation. Today, nine faculty members lead the physical therapy program, which serves the entire state of New Mexico, and the UNM Physical Therapy Program is in the process of transitioning to a Doctorate of Physical Therapy (DPT). After Omer’s retirement in 1990, the program grew to include occupational therapy, which is now part of UNM’s Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation. Physical and occupational continue to be important components of orthopaedic offerings at UNM.

With the addition of Dr. Moheb Moneim in 1976, the department established New Mexico’s first microsurgery service. Extremity replantation was offered, and the first surgery on a severed hand was performed in 1977. The microsurgery teaching lab was established at UNM’s School of Medicine and is now an integral part of its training programs. The microsurgery program helps fellows develop basic skills for clinical microneurovascular surgery through a number of microsurgical exercises and provides a broad foundation in microdexterity. The laboratory also provides opportunities for basic science research relevant to the microsurgical technique. There are currently limited departments in the country which offer such a laboratory or training program.

Unparalleled Personal Achievement

During his two decades at UNM, Omer held three, concurrent academic appointments. He was Interim Medical Director at Carrie Tingley Hospital for Children for several years and served as Assistant Dean for Graduate Education at UNM Medical Center from 1979 to 1981. He started regularly caring for children in Truth or Consequences at Carrie Tingley Hospital which relocated to Albuquerque in the early 1980s. “He was very effective in treating children with hand problems,” says Dr. Moheb Moneim, Omer’s successor as department chair. “His relationships with all of his patients were excellent.”

In 1989, Omer cemented his role as one of the nation’s top orthopaedic surgeons when he served as the president of the prestigious American Orthopaedic Association (AOA). Founded in 1887, the AOA is the oldest and, arguably, most distinguished orthopaedic organization in the world. It currently has more than 1,500 members. Membership is open only to those who have made a significant contribution to education, research and the practice of orthopaedic surgery. The AOA founded the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery in 1889. Omer served as chairman of its Board of Trustees for years before retiring in 1989.

Omer co-authored Management of Peripheral Nerve Problems, a comprehensive textbook for orthopaedic surgeons, and wrote hundreds of articles about hand and nerve repair. He traveled extensively for his work, speaking at international conferences about hand surgery and nerve repair, and was widely regarded as the leading expert in the field.

Leading the Way – Future of Hand Surgery

Despite his numerous contributions to the department and the field of orthopaedic surgery, Omer was best known for his work in hand surgery. “Two of his greatest contributions were in the areas of peripheral nerve repair and restoration of function to the hand,” says Moneim. “He published one of the classic articles in the early 1970s about nerve injuries following gunshot wounds to the upper extremities. That was a very important article, and people still refer to it.”

Although hand surgery emerged during World War II, Omer is credited worldwide as a pioneer for his work, and he was instrumental in shaping the current field of hand surgery. By early 1974, it was understood that upper extremity reconstruction and hand surgery required a specific skill set, meshing the boundaries of orthopaedics, general and plastic surgery. Still, there was no formal method to becoming a specialized hand surgeon.

A driving force behind centralizing training and certification of hand surgeons was the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH), founded in 1946. The ASSH is the oldest, medical specialty society in the nation and is entirely focused on continuing medical education related to hand surgery. In 1971, the ASSH saw a need to develop a uniform, central method to train and credential upcoming hand specialists. Once again, Omer was actively engaged in this organization, later serving as its president. His ultimate role in credentialing left an important, nationwide legacy for the future of hand surgery. “Dr. Omer was the leading force to establish board certification in hand surgery, whereby you legitimized the pathway that a graduate came through to become specialized in hand surgery,” says Moneim. The process was approved in 1989 and fully implemented in 1994. Today, all hand surgery specialists must take part in the training and certification that Omer helped design and implement.

Lasting Legacy

As a result of the foundation laid by Omer, the UNM Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation continues to excel in hand surgery. Hand surgery fellows are now required to have completed residency in orthopaedic, plastic or general surgery and are trained in congenital problems, arthritis, trauma and microsurgery. Participants can serve in the weekly pediatric upper extremity clinic at Carrie Tingley Children’s Hospital, and graduates are well versed in peripheral nerve injuries by the time they complete the program.

Although Omer retired as department chairman in 1990, his professional legacy will not soon be forgotten. His colleagues also point to the tremendous respect personal respect they have for him. “He was hard working, definitely dedicated to orthopaedics, and very professional,” says Moneim. “We worked extensively together in research and patient care, and it was a very good professional relationship. We were always able to discuss cases together and share our opinions with one another.”

By the time Omer retired in 1990, the department had grown to 17 faculty numbers, it had taken over care of the UNM Athletic Department and its specialties offered expanded to include hand, trauma and sports medicine. Consider that such growth took place under one physician’s 20-year career at UNM!

The department’s goal in the 1990s was to develop more comprehensive coverage for patients. Today, we offer services in all areas of orthopaedics and house 28 full-time faculty members. Three fellowship programs, in hand, sports and trauma, provide the highest level of training for orthopaedic surgeons, and the residency program has grown to include five new orthopaedic residents every year. The department handles about one-fourth of the surgical load at UNM Hospital and just less than half of all outpatient surgery at our Outpatient Surgery and Imaging Service (OSIS) facility.

The UNM orthopaedic team has made incredible achievements since its inception some 40 years ago, and continues to grow, building on its solid foundation and eagerly anticipating its future to capably meet the needs of New Mexico’s orthopaedic patients.