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Sandia LabNews

When seconds count: ER doc, Sandia engineer join forces on stronger trauma shears


MAKING THE CUT — Sandia researcher Mark?Reece, right, and Albuquerque emergency room physician Scott Forman examine trauma shears developed for Forman’s company, Héros, under a  New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program project. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

MAKING THE CUT — Sandia researcher Mark Reece, right, and Albuquerque emergency room physician Scott Forman examine trauma shears developed for Forman’s company, Héros, under a New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program project. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

“It was the strangest thing. Everyone just stopped,” Forman says. “A paramedic looked across at me, grabbed my hand and said, ‘Where did you get those shears?’ I said I made them.”

A half dozen people in the ER that day in 2008 placed orders for Forman’s shears. “I knew then that I needed to go into business,” he says.

Forman later teamed with a Sandia engineer to improve his trauma shears design so emergency personnel can more quickly get to the injuries they need to treat.

 “Sometimes seconds count. This product will make a difference for the medical community,” says Mark Reece (1831) of Sandia’s Multiscale Metallurgical Science & Technology group. “It’s neat to see something come out of Sandia that will save lives.”

 Forman is CEO of the Albuquerque startup Héros, formerly known as EMvolution, in addition to being an ER physician. He and Mark joined forces through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA)

Program, which pairs entrepreneurs with scientists at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories. The state-funded program was established in 2000 by the New Mexico Legislature to help small businesses get technical support from the labs. It has provided $29.8 million in assistance to 1,876 companies in 33 counties. The help is free of charge to the business.

Mark worked with Forman to improve the performance and durability of trauma shears – the go-to tool for responders in the first seconds of a crisis. The shears must cut through a wide range of materials, from denim to leather to Kevlar, to expose wounds for treatment.

Smarter, more durable trauma shears was something Forman had imagined and tinkered with in his garage for years. He has a background in mountaineering and wilderness medicine and was frustrated by the flimsy, disposable construction of typical trauma shears. “They are imprecise and made of cheap, shoddy materials with a blade that dulls quickly,” he says. “People just throw them away.”

And they get lost. “It’s not at all uncommon to have a patient come into the ER and everybody starts looking for their darn trauma shears,” Forman says. “They’re hard to keep track of. You can’t find them.” 

Forman fitted the handle of his first home-made shears with an integrated carabiner that clips onto a belt. He attached it to a standard manufactured set of trauma shears blades coated with titanium nitrate for a sharper, longer-lasting edge. And he personalized the shears with laser engraving so if they got lost, they’d find their way back.

Forman founded a company in 2008, applied for a patent, and made 1,100 pairs in his spare time while working as a University of New Mexico resident in emergency medicine. “They just caught on from word of mouth,” he says. “Most of the EMTs in New Mexico carry some version of my early trauma shears. I started to think this could work.”

Trial and error

But Forman needed serious help to produce the top-notch shears he envisioned and believed he could sell in bulk to global customers in military, medical, emergency, and other fields. He met flight paramedic Daniel Barela, who had brought a product to prototype through NMSBA with his company Trinity Medical.

 Barela was intrigued by Forman’s trauma shears and joined the business. They applied to NMSBA. In December 2010, Forman was directed to Mark — and stopped making shears in his garage.

“I took Mark our first-generation product and told him we needed help with the material selection for the blades and the blade design so the shears could cut through a more robust set of materials,” Forman says.

 He handed Mark about 15 materials that emergency personnel typically face, including Kevlar from bulletproof vests, loose gauze, diapers, fiberglass, and plaster, all with different densities and compositions. He also gave Mark a variety of blades.

“We wanted Mark to determine if there was one blade design that would give the most bang for the buck,” Forman says. “And Mark, the genius that he is, did it.”

Mark studied the best shears from all over the world, focusing on why some worked better than others and why none worked well on synthetic fibers such as Kevlar, ballistic nylons, and polyethylenes. He tested all the blades on all the materials.

“The failures were very reproducible,” Mark says. “I began to see a trend of what worked and why.”

He researched the literature on cutting with scissor blades. “I drew in material on everything from hairstylists to fabric manufacturers and tried to assemble a picture of what was going on here,” he says. “I got out the microscope and video camera and examined what happens as each blade attempts to cut fabric.”

Mark learned how serrations should be made and combined that data with information on dentation of animals such as sharks, whose triangular teeth are powerful shearing machines. He then tested various blade angles on all the materials. Mark machined trial blades and gave Forman reports and prototypes. “We honed in on a design that gives much better cutting capability,” Mark says.

He and Forman worked together for about six months. The base-model shears they developed has an ergonomic, ambidextrous handle with an integrated carabiner. The blade length and handle pivot point are engineered to generate considerable torque, so less effort is needed for heavy cutting. The blades are high carbon content surgical stainless steel that can be autoclaved.

“We incorporated a proprietary blade design,” Forman says. “Mark is excessively meticulous. He created the pitch of this blade, the troughs between the serrations, the angulations of the serrations and pitch of the other blade – the nonserrated side -to create shears that can cut through everything. It’s brilliant.”

The shears also have a ripper attachment with a replaceable blade to zip through clothing, a bottle opener for medications, a key for oxygen tanks and a window punch. “It’s an all-in-one tool,” Forman says. “EMTs suggested some of the features.”

A eureka moment

 Under NMSBA rules, the program pays for a specific amount of the researcher’s time, which is woven into his or her existing work. The business owner keeps rights to any intellectual property generated through the collaboration.

Forman’s company, Héros, has a patent pending on the final trauma shears design and is negotiating prototype production, product manufacturing, and distribution. Héros includes Forman and Barela, along with Drew Tulchin, who focuses on business development, and marketing director Mike Sophir.

Mark says he enjoyed working with Forman. “It was very cool,” Mark says. “Scott Forman is the real deal. He’s enterprising and has good ideas. When he says this is what we need and this is why, you listen.”

John Willgohs of the Bernalillo County Fire Department says he had a eureka moment when he first saw Forman’s shears. “The ones out there are adequate, but if you have to cut through anything of any substance or thickness, you might as well throw the shears away afterward,” he says. “To have something stronger and more beefy, wow, it’s fantastic. And the clip, oh my gosh. You’re rushing around in the heat of the moment, it’s chaotic, and you have to find the shears. When they’re clipped to your belt, they’re right there. That clip was another eureka moment.”

Mike Cavit, an Albuquerque emergency room technician and EMT, says he appreciates that the blades stay sharper longer and can be resharpened. “The clip makes them accessible and the blades stay sharp,” he says.

The shears will cost more than typical throwaway models, from $20 to $60 versus $5 to $10. Both Cavit and Willgohs say the extra cost would be well worth it to have better shears.

Forman says he has other ideas for improved emergency equipment and would like to work again with Mark. He plans to reapply to NMSBA. “It’s a fantastic program,” Forman says. “It’s invaluable.”

Forman, who finished his residency and joined Presbyterian Hospital in 2010, says the trauma shears have been a labor of love.

“I’ve learned a lot about business, marketing, customer service, material selection and design, manufacturing, prototyping, intellectual property, acquisition, contract law,” he says. “Just about every day somebody comes up and says, ‘Aren’t you the doc who makes trauma shears?’ They have ideas of their own. These are nurses and paramedics and people who know what they’re talking about. I want to be able to help get those products to market.”