Hastings tries out SIGN nail

Congressman Doc Hastings lived up to his nickname Friday as he learned how to install the patented orthopedic nail developed by Dr. Lewis Zirkle of Richland.

The devices are used to heal arm and leg fractures in disaster areas and developing nations.

Zirkle stood at Hastings' side in a room at the Surgical Implant Generation Network offices and guided him through the process of assembling the nail and inserting it into a replica of a human femur, or thigh bone.

As they worked, Hastings asked questions about SIGN's operations -- how long it takes to insert a nail into a fractured bone in the field -- where orthopedic surgeons often are working with no electricity, no high-tech equipment and no sterile operating rooms.

Zirkle handed Hastings a drill and had him feel where he would bolt the nail to stabilize the bone.

"How do I know when I'm there?" Hastings asked.

"If you hit the metal," Zirkle said.

He told Hastings it took about two years to stabilize the design, which has been put to use by 5,000 surgeons who SIGN has trained in 47 developing countries.

The nonprofit has established clinics in many of those countries, and helps about 20,000 people each year, including in places hit by disaster and conflict such as Haiti, Mongolia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania.

Zirkle himself has traveled all over the world, including most of Southeast Asia.

The idea behind SIGN is to bring equality of medical treatment to people across the globe. The seed for that idea was first planted when Zirkle served in the Vietnam War.

"I thought the Vietnamese soldiers should get the same treatment as Americans," he said.

In some sense, the SIGN nail gives those who receive it better care than they might get even in an American hospital.

Zirkle said standard treatment for an arm or leg fracture is to use external fixators -- pins that stick out from the bone and are connected to an external rod that holds the bone in place while it heals.

But having pins stick out means the limb is open to infection.

The SIGN nail holds the bone in place internally and the incisions used to implant the nail are closed after surgery, making the patient less vulnerable to infection, he said.

Hastings said he was impressed with what he saw at SIGN. Friday's visit was his first -- and one he had been wanting to make for some time.

"It is absolutely remarkable in the positive way they impact people who need help," Hastings said.