Sol Weiss, B.S.Ph., D.O.’59, was a family medicine physician who sometimes covered the emergency room at a time when “few physicians wanted to get near one.” He was particularly troubled by the possibility of having to perform an emergency tracheotomy on someone with a blocked airway, given the risks of the procedure.
“It was a horrendous procedure, very bloody,” he says. “If the doctors in the ER didn’t want to do a tracheotomy, they had to get a surgeon, but often by the time the surgeon got there, the patient was dead.”
He recalls staffing the emergency room in a Canoga Park, CA, hospital when a boy was rushed in, choking on a bite-size chunk of hot dog. Weiss decided a tracheotomy was needed, but he was worried about his ability to do the procedure. Done improperly, it could kill or permanently injure a patient. Fortunately, just as he was about to make the incision, the boy coughed up the food. Shaken, Weiss knew he had to take action.
“I had to do something about the situation because I’m not a trained surgeon. I had to change the scene,” he says.
He began researching medical literature and sketching ideas. He found a designer and a tooling specialist to produce a prototype. After the instrument was tested on animals, a neurosurgeon friend agreed to try it on patients.
“He was always getting called in on emergencies. He wound up having four cases in which he used my instrument,” Weiss says. “We had the instrument, we had testing by a valid neurosurgeon who faced these emergencies and we had good results.”
He called the device “Nu-Trake.” It was designed to be used in cricothyrotomy, an emergency procedure for airway obstruction that cannot be treated by oral or nasal intubation. The incision for the airway is placed through the cricothyroid membrane instead of through the trachea itself. On Oct. 1, 1971, he gave a presentation on the procedure at a national emergency medical conference in Dallas.
“I thought I would be presenting to 15 doctors, but I had to present in an auditorium. The place was packed – people were lining the walls,” he says. “After my presentation, the whole slew came up to talk to me.”
Weiss worked diligently through the arduous process of obtaining FDA approval. An attorney friend helped him acquire patents. By 1980, Nu-Trake was ready for market; a few years later, he created “Pedia-Trake,” a similar device to be used on children. The instruments went worldwide. A group of doctors in Munchen, Germany, even made a video about it that showed a physician using Nu-Trake to restore a patient’s breathing in just nine seconds.
“Everyone who was using my device loved it. Word got out,” he says.
Now 89 and retired in Los Angeles, Weiss went on to invent 17 medically related devices, including a pocket-sized tool to keep doctors from exposing themselves to the AIDS virus when treating patients with traumatic injuries. Even though the patents on Nu-Trake and Pedia-Trake expired years ago, he treasures their impact.
“Today I can be proud of my work, because of all the children and adults [needing tracheotomies] who might have died otherwise,” he says. “The previous procedure was so clumsy, and people were dying from it. It was a real dilemma, and I got it solved.”