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The man who saved the Pope


21st MArch 2005


A MEDICAL instrument made by a prominent Adelaide surgeon in a shed 16 years ago has been credited with saving Pope John Paul's life.


Dr Bill Griggs developed the tools which Italian surgeons used to perform a tracheostomy on the 84-year-old pontiff last month.
"The Pope was having trouble breathing and they needed to do the procedure so, yes, it probably helped save his life but there are other ways you can do it as well," said Dr Griggs, director of trauma services at Royal Adelaide Hospital.


"I don't know that it will give me any inside running in the hereafter but it's nice to have been involved in developing something that has proved useful."


The "Griggs Kit", as it is commonly called, is used extensively around the world with tens of thousands of kits sold every year.


The device is sold by UK company Portex, now Smiths Medical, which bought patent rights to the design from Dr Griggs in the early 1990s for an undisclosed amount.


The kit, which sells for under $200, includes Dr Griggs' guidewire dilator forceps which are bent at the tip and are used to open up a hole in the windpipe and a tracheostomy tube developed by Portex.


After a cut is made just below the Adam's apple, a device is inserted to keep the hole open as the guidewire is threaded through into the trachea. This is used to guide where the forceps go which, when opened, make a hole big enough to fit the tracheostomy tube. A breathing machine is then attached.


Dr Griggs, who led medical teams to Banda Aceh in the wake of the tsunami and to Bali after the Sari Club bombing, said the curved forceps were the main difference between his and two other kits that were also used to perform tracheostomies.


"We had tried another kit that used a series of eight dilators used to make a hole in the trachea, but I thought we'd be able to do it another way with a pair of forceps," Dr Griggs said.


"So what I did was come up with an instrument that would do the procedure a lot more quickly and more simply.


"We just needed to make sure we got the forceps in the right place."


Dr Griggs began developing the forceps with the help of his mechanical engineer father Jim in a backyard shed at Medindie in 1989.


"I had the idea and spoke to Dad about it and he helped me with the technical business of making it," Dr Griggs said. "We got a pair of forceps and increased the bend in them, tapered them down and drilled a hole at the tip; then we went and tried them."


After conducting some bench tests, a formal prospective trial was then undertaken with approval from the RAH's ethics committee.


"And it's since become a worldwide thing and this is exactly the same kit that would have been used (on the Pope)," he said.


The procedure on the Pope was reported to have taken about 30 minutes to complete under general anaesthesia. Dr Griggs said he had managed to perform an urgent tracheostomy using the kit in under one minute.


"It really is just another example that in South Australia we can do things that make a difference worldwide," he said.

   
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