There are several ways that Americans observe Memorial Day weekend. I decided to head outside and grill a few brats, pour myself an iced tea with extra sugar, and bike through some beautiful landscape in Wisconsin. And then it happened, the end of what had been a perfect weekend: I had an unfortunate mountain bike accident. Did I fall off a small cliff? Did I hit a tree? Did I lose my balance riding over a picturesque stream? No. I fell off my bike in a parking lot. My ankle twisted as I tried to dismount, and I lost my balance and fell on my left side. In the process, I fractured my elbow and received several cuts, bruises, and a nasty gash in my knee.
This was my first time to end a three-day weekend in the emergency room, but the journey didn’t end there. The day after being told the fracture could heal with immobilization, a radiologist and orthopaedic surgeon examined my X-rays and informed me that the chipped and displaced elbow would need surgery. Last Friday, I kept the holiday spirit alive when titanium screws were placed in my left elbow at Beaver Dam Community Hospital. My first broken bone and my first surgery, all within the same week! It was also my first time to learn a little bit about the metal components used in medical devices.
Using metals in surgical procedures has been common for many years. The use of metals runs the gamut from dental work to heart repairs, arthoplasty or “hip replacement”, and cervical spine fusion and other implants in today’s medical world. Make no mistake, this use of metals is big business. One of the better known companies dealing in this technology is Wright Medical Group, a global orthopaedic medical device company specializing in the design, manufacture, and marketing of reconstructive joint devices and biologics. Headquartered in Arlington, Tenn., this company has been in business for more than half a century, utilizing metals to advance the healing arts. Zimmer, with headquarters in Warsaw, Indiana, is another worldwide leader in this field. Zimmer markets its products in over 100 countries, has over 7,600 employees worldwide, and designates over 700 employees in the area of research and development. In 2007, the company boasted having the number one market position in hip and knee replacement devices.
For more than 350,000 people who fracture a hip each year in the U.S., the progress in technology in metal usage for replacement is good news. Metals most commonly used in orthpaedic implants are stainless steel, cobalt-chromium alloys, titanium alloys, titanium, and tantalum. The fabrication of metal implants is a complex process. The metals used could be machined, molded, or compressed. Of course, any of these methods can alter the characteristics of materials, causing them to be stronger in some cases, weaker in others. Therefore, it is vital for producers to pick the right material and the right fabrication to get the optimum result for the product to be used in an implant procedure. While the technology gains momentum, and this use of metals garners financial gains for corporations and healthcare concerns, the bottom line is that it helps patients have a quality of life that may not be possible without the implants.
It’s taking a while to accept the titanium screws in my arm — both physically and psychologically! — and I’m still waiting for that full range of elbow motion. Then there’s the most burning question on my mind: Am I going to set off airport security alarms down the line? In spite of the accident happening at the worst possible time, right before finals at my university, this experience has changed my life and opened my eyes to a new way that metals impact people. On top of that, the support from my friends and family was amazing — especially the night following surgery, when I suffered from short-term memory loss due to certain medication and made the same terrible joke about my “poly-metal alloy” elbow about fifteen times (doesn’t anyone remember Terminator 2?). I really appreciated everyone at Beaver Dam Community Hospital, especially Dr. Paul Shuler and Joann. It’s a wonderful facility, and Beaver Dam is a vibrant community. It’s certainly a town to keep in mind for future getaways. Just don’t break any bones… You never know what metals could wind up in your arm next!