Powering Change: Dr. Lewis Zirkle
Philanthropist Lewis Zirkle heals the bones of patients in developing countries with life-changing surgery
January 18, 2018
By Kristin Dizon. This article was first published in Seattle Foundation's Heart & Science magazine, Volume 4.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lewis Zirkle Jr. founded SIGN Fracture Care International in 1999 to bring affordable, accessible bone-healing techniques to patients around the world. A longtime Seattle Foundation philanthropist, he dedicates his giving to SIGN’s humanitarian work and is the author of "We Walk the World: A Journey of Healing." Visit www.signfracturecare.org for more information.
The smiling faces of the formerly hobbled are what Dr. Lewis Zirkle treasures: a teenager in Myanmar whose leg was broken in a motorcycle accident while making deliveries as the family’s sole breadwinner; the doctor in Ethiopia who was hit by a car three weeks after medical school, then healed by Zirkle’s SIGN implant. The need for Dr. Zirkle’s bone-healing technology is great. In much of the developing world, medical facilities lack equipment that is standard here and power may be intermittent or non-existent. At the same time, collisions are an epidemic, leaving a trail of crippled patients in their wake.
“More people die from road traffic accidents than from AIDS, hepatitis and malaria combined,” said Zirkle.
To bring quality health care to these patients, Dr. Zirkle and other volunteers travel to developing countries to train surgeons to repair broken limbs. SIGN provides the implants and instruments for free or at cost.
There are now SIGN teams in more than 50 countries, who record their procedures in a digital database, which Zirkle uses to review several hundred cases a day. More than 200,000 patients around the world have been healed by SIGN Surgery to date.
Zirkle, 77, was raised in Massachusetts until moving as a teenager to North Carolina. His father, an engineer at General Electric, also ran a goat farm.
“He taught me so much there. He also got me a job at a lumber company where I was the only white guy. And, he taught me to treat everybody equally,” said Zirkle, who brings humility and a thirst for learning to his work.
Zirkle wanted to be a carpenter, and liked working with his hands, but his coursework at Davidson College led him on a path to medical school at Duke University. Then, following a year of orthopedic residency, he was drafted for the war in Vietnam, where he despaired at the inhumanity of combat.
Years later, after settling in Richland with a thriving orthopedic practice, Zirkle was drawn back to Vietnam and Southeast Asia for week-long surgical clinics, donating his time to teach surgeons in-country.
At the bedside of a patient in Indonesia in 1986, he had an epiphany. The man had spent three years in the hospital, with his leg in traction. Zirkle said he had addressed this exact kind of case with the man’s doctor and asked why they couldn’t mend the leg. “And, his answer stopped me short: He said, we can’t use your implants because we have power outages and we can’t use your equipment,” Zirkle recounted. “I realized with a sinking feeling that I had wasted 10 years intermittently. So, I said all right, I’ll work on this.”
Zirkle returned to Richland, tinkering in his garage to find a different way to mend broken bones. He kept experimenting, then brought in engineers and machinists and built a manufacturing facility. He and his team created several steel nails with interlocking screws that can be implanted mechanically with a device called a slot finder, so surgery can be performed without expensive equipment.
After incorporating SIGN in 1999, he built a formidable network of doctors trained in SIGN surgery. In just one example, the number of orthopedic surgeons in Ethiopia grew from three to nearly a hundred after Zirkle’s visits, and SIGN continues to provide implants and educational opportunities for them. A father of three and grandfather of nine, Zirkle now travels abroad several times a year to train and network with surgeons.
He believes patients around the world deserve equal care and the chance to live productive, healthy lives.
“In many countries, they get lesser treatment. They might wrap a fracture with bamboo splints and some salve on an open wound, which often causes more problems,” Zirkle said. “If it happens to the breadwinner or parent, the whole family spirals into poverty for three generations. So SIGN surgery is huge in the patient’s life.”
Heart & Science Magazine
Read Heat & Science magazine Vol. 4 for more on how philanthropists, community organizations and Seattle Foundation are working to create lasting change in health and education.
Learn more about effective strategies to strengthen Health & Wellness as an element of a healthy community. Interested in making your giving more impactful? Connect with one of our expert philanthropic advisors.
Health and Wellness,
Heart and Science Magazine,