Dr. Zirkle to bring gear to help Haiti's injured

By John Trumbo, Herald staff writerJanuary 14, 2010 

RICHLAND -- Help for victims of Haiti's earthquake and the scores of injured is on the way from Richland orthopedic surgeon Lewis Zirkle.

Zirkle, who developed a bone-mending technique 10 years ago that uses metal rods as a surgical implant, will be taking about 400 pounds of surgical gear and stainless steel rods to the heart of the disaster near Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. He will set up makeshift operating rooms in a rural missionary school's classroom that somehow withstood the 7.0-magnitude quake.

Zirkle's nonprofit Surgical Implant Generation Network, also known as SIGN, specializes in providing the surgical kits for about 200 hospitals around the world.

So when Zirkle makes house calls, not surprisingly it's to faraway places where disasters have left thousands homeless and helpless, or dead. He's been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Iraq, and Indonesia in the wake of earthquakes, floods and tsunamis.

This time, Zirkle expects to leave Pasco no later than this weekend on a chartered flight, said Jeanne Dillner, who will go along as CEO of the nonprofit organization.

The trip came together unexpectedly but with precise timing.

A series of events, all unrelated, began days before the earthquake hit.

The first was last week when representatives of Medical Teams International, a Christian based nonprofit from Portland, contacted SIGN to learn more about what Zirkle's organization does and how the two groups could work together in responding to disasters.

The second event came this week when representatives of Northwest Tissue Services in Seattle visited Zirkle and brought donations of bone chips that can be used to help stimulate new growth while repairing broken bones.

And when the earthquake struck in Haiti, flattening Port-au-Prince, it also hit the 66-acre Global Outreach Haiti Christian mission compound near Port-au-Prince.

The undulating ground knocked everything off shelves, rocked vehicles violently and made a 40-foot-long shipping container bounce "like a ping-pong ball," said Pete Gibson, Global's vice president, from his headquarters in Mississippi.

Gibson said he used a satellite phone to obtain hourly updates from the compound's director, David Heady, who reported no major damage even though the compound was only seven miles from the worst of the damage.

In Richland, while Zirkle was deciding to pack his medical kit, Gibson was checking with staff at the Haiti mission and learning about the desperate need for orthopedic doctors to help with the earthquake victims.

A question to an orthopedic doctor on Global's board of directors led Gibson to contact the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons, which had him talking to Zirkle by phone at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday -- less than 24 hours after the quake struck.

Zirkle heard just what he had been praying for: A place close to the quake disaster scene with buildings intact and suitable for makeshift surgery suites, availability of an independent generator power system and a stored water supply, and a kitchen and dormitory for the visiting medical teams to use.

"It's a God thing," said Gibson, who noted that it was more than coincidental that the compound's director on Monday decided to buy a two-month supply of diesel fuel for the four generators that power the facility and run pumps for seven wells that fill a large storage tank.

Within minutes of that phone call, Zirkle was anxious to find flight arrangements and locate transportable medical equipment needed to outfit four surgical suites.

"Get on eBay, we have to get sterilizers and make our own operating rooms," he told one staff member. "And where can we get a charter plane?" he asked.

By mid-afternoon, Zirkle had his answers.

While American Airlines had canceled flights to Haiti until further notice, Zirkle's new contacts at Medical Teams International in Portland had lined up a charter flight with room for the SIGN team to come along.

And medical supplies are being donated by the Stryker and Acumed orthopedic supply firms, Dillner said.

The mission of mercy will include about $100,000 in medical equipment provided through SIGN, Zirkle said.

But it doesn't stop there.

SIGN offices received a flood of phone calls and e-mails from doctors across the U.S. -- from Baltimore and Chicago to Vancouver and Portland -- all offering to go to Haiti as part of the medical team, Dillner said.

"We have no idea how long we will be there," Zirkle said.

Haiti is even more difficult a country than other developing nations because it has been losing its doctors.

But Zirkle, who has mended bones while operating in freezing conditions in Afghanistan with only a tent as a pretense for surgical facilities, remains hopeful.

"We've been collecting equipment for the last year to build our disaster-readiness kit. We've talked to medical implant companies about getting donations. All so we can be ready to go," he said.

"People know that we do this. Things come, just when we need them," he said.

-- John Trumbo: 509-582-1529; jtrumbo@tricityherald.com

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