A newsmaker you should know: New knees give Peters man a photographic opportunity

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Joe Unitas, 77, has always led an active life, both as an athlete with a famous last name and as a photographer. A few years ago, however, the Peters man began having problems with his knees.

"When I'd photograph, it got so bad I couldn't stand for more than five minutes without experiencing severe pain, especially in my right knee," he said.

Neighbors who heard of his ailment recommended a visit to Thomas Mutschler of the Mutschler Orthopaedic Institute at Canonsburg General Hospital. He took their advice and scheduled an appointment, and a follow-up series of X-rays of his knees showed images of "bone on bone."

"His knees were really bad," Dr. Mutschler said. "He had severe arthritis, and his legs were bowed. As a result, he had a difficult time getting up out of a chair and going up and down stairs."

Because both knees were badly damaged and Mr. Unitas was in good health, he was an excellent candidate for bilateral knee replacement, an operation in which both legs are fitted with new knees in a single procedure.

"To me, it's better to replace both at the same time," Dr. Mutschler said. "The rehab time of six weeks to two months can be done simultaneously on both knees. After that, a patient can do almost anything he wants."

Mr. Unitas had his bilateral knee replacement in May 2012. He said when he woke up from surgery he didn't feel anything because he was so sedated. He did have some pain later on when he tried to get up from a sitting position, but it has since gone away.

"The first thing my wife and I did after she picked me up from the hospital was drive to a Mt. Washington bar for a martini," he said. "I feel so good now. A week ago, I took my ice skates out of the closet and am thinking about skating again. I also golf twice a week and am still going strong with my photography."

Dr. Mutschler said that, for people with knee replacements walking is fine, as is swimming, golf and even tennis. He does not, however, recommend running or anything else that involves a lot of impact on the knee.

Mr. Unitas blames his knee problems on the hard hits he received as a football player in high school and college and playing an exhibition season with what were then the Baltimore Colts. He also played hockey for the Pittsburgh Knights for three years at the Duquesne Gardens.

His interest in football began even earlier as a kid living in Beechview, where he passed the football with his cousin, Johnny, who went on to become a star quarterback for the Colts.

"As children, Johnny and I were close and visited one another on birthdays and special occasions," he said. "At one time, my name used to be 'Johnny Unitas' Cousin,' and it didn't become Joe until I opened my photography studio."

Basically self-taught, Mr. Unitas began freelancing as a photographer and lighting technician for a variety of film producers in 1968, the same year he opened a studio in Peters. His clients included Alcoa, Westinghouse, Consolidated Coal, Iron City Beer, U.S. Steel and Bayer, for whom he worked on training and sales films and advertising campaigns for television and magazines.

"I had a lot of lighting equipment, which is why George Romero hired me as a light man for 'Night of the Living Dead,' " he said. "Later, I sold two of my Bardwell and McAlister 2,000-watt lamps on eBay and got a good price for them because they were used in the film."

Mr. Unitas said he loves hearing the click of a camera and likes portraiture and family shots best. The work that most fascinated him, however, were photo shoots inside steel mills and underground in coal mines.

With all sorts of lights and four cameras in his studio, Mr. Unitas said he made the transition from color negative photography to the digital age fairly easily. He's still taking photographs, and now his knees don't bother him.

neigh_south - neigh_washington

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com


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