From Rocketry to Surgery
WHEN I was about 5, I was always taking apart radios, clocks and other electronic devices. If our neighbors were tossing something out, they would give it to me. I’d open the back of the unit and look at the vacuum tubes. I knew that if they weren’t glowing, they were broken and I’d try and find replacements.
When my parents saw how fascinated I was with learning how things work, they enrolled me in a science enrichment program at Columbia University on Saturdays. My father drove me into the city for it for the next four years.
The space program was in the news at that time, and it introduced me to rocketry. In junior high I started a club called Zertl, for Zodiac Experimental Research and Testing Labs, to build and launch model rockets.
In high school, I gravitated toward engineering. But I also liked working with people. We’d see films in science class, and there was always a guy in a white lab coat working alone in a lab. He seemed pretty lonely. By then I had also developed an interest in medicine, so I thought I’d combine engineering and medicine.
I received a B.S. degree in biochemical engineering from Yale in 1978 and a medical degree from Dartmouth Medical School in 1981. I served my surgical residency at what is now NYU Langone Medical Center. Initially, I was enamored of trauma surgery because of the challenge — you have only minutes to decide what to do. My mentor suggested that to become a great trauma surgeon I learn how to operate on the heart and lungs, and once I performed heart surgery I was hooked on that.
During my residency I invented several surgical devices. Some heart surgeries require that a heart-lung machine take over some functions for a patient. Often, it requires surgery to connect the patient to the machine. In the late 1980s I developed a catheter for the connection, which was less invasive than the surgical procedure and could be used in emergency situations.
While I was developing it, a woman arrived at the hospital who had been found in an unheated apartment and had no vital signs. I asked my boss if I could try my device on her and he agreed. I connected her to the heart-lung machine and her heart started in about 15 minutes. She was discharged a few days later with no damage to her brain or heart. Her case was published in the Annals of Thoracic Surgery.
When I became an attending physician, I invented a device for measuring blood flow in the leg. And my wife, Karen, and I started a company called Zertl Medical to market it. We developed the device in our garage and eventually sold it internationally. I now have 10 patents for medical devices.
In the late 1990s, a medical device salesperson visited me and demonstrated an automatic external defibrillator that anyone could operate. Defibrillators are important because if a patient’s heart develops deadly irregular rhythms, the only way to try to fix it is to shock the heart. It’s like rebooting a computer.
I recognized the benefit immediately, but I thought that his device was unwieldy and expensive. I contacted Gintaras Vaisnys, a fellow student from Yale. He and I started Defibtech in 1999 to develop a less-expensive model that was easier to use. I’m also chairman of cardiac surgery and director of the Heart Hospital at St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton. I spend about half my time operating and the other half helping to run the company. I sometimes wear a white lab coat, but the work is much more gratifying than the science-class films depicted.