Lew Zirkle, a doctor in Richland, Washington, works with thousands of surgeons all over the world to treat injuries in poor or war-ravaged countries. He will receive the U.S. Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service—the highest honor the Defense department gives to a non-career civilian—by Secretary James Mattis later this month.
When he was a young medical student, doctor Lew Zirkle was drafted to serve in Vietnam. An experience that changed his life was when he treated a 10-year-old Vietnamese boy. The child had napalm burns to his knee and couldn’t bend his leg or walk.
“He and I worked together,” Zirkle said. “He never understood complete English, but we had this bond, because I had to adjust the weights on his traction to pull his leg straight so he could walk. And finally it happened.”
After months, when he was well enough to go home, Zirkle remembers watching the boy and his father walk away together.
“I realized the importance was treating all people,”n he said. “And therefore I became more enthusiastic about treating people who don’t have a chance. People who have to accept what they get.”
Since then, Zirkle has built a nonprofit, called SIGN Fracture Care. It makes medical implants—stainless steel rods—that can speed the healing of broken bones. The nearly 50-person non-profit manufactures the rod-shaped implants, called nails in Richland.
SIGN trains surgeons from all over the globe and supplies them with the implants and the tools to use them. They treat people injured in war and many in motorcycle accidents—which are really common in the developing world.
Zirkle spends much of each year traveling to conflict zones like South Sudan and Iraq.
“If you see the SIGN surgeons talk with each other, you see people from countries that don’t have good relationships with each other,” he said. “But the surgeons do, they’re above all that.”
Zirkle said since 1999, his team has trained thousands of surgeons and made more than 200,000 surgeries possible.