Ind. man's unusual woodworking

He makes replacement bones for dead donor

Science & Fitness

September 09, 2005|By Rex W. Huppke | Rex W. Huppke,Chicago Tribune

VALPARAISO, Ind. -- Richard Marrell II spends his days amid the dust of Brazilian hardwood, seconds ticking off to the chucka-chucka-chuck rhythm of a busy drill press.

He's in a weathered cinderblock building that once housed a muffler shop, making wooden bones that will be sewn into the arms and legs of dead bodies across the country.

Wood bones for dead bodies? Well, technically they're called "cadaveric donor prosthetics." They're replacement parts for people who have died and donated their bones and tissue -- femurs, joints, ligaments, tendons -- to living human beings.

Given Marrell's background, he seemed destined for an odd line of work. He grew up inspired by an entrepreneurial grandfather, left middle America in the 1990s seeking adventure, ended up in tense operating rooms assisting brain surgeons, then returned to Indiana a few years ago with a business idea that made most friends and family members say, "Huh?"

It was an idea that, to most, sounded a bit macabre. It also was an idea that worked.

Nationally, more than 25,000 people each year donate bone and tissue, supplying about 1 million Americans with transplants. These include heart-valve replacements, skin grafts for burn victims, bone grafts and even bone replacements for people with cancer.

"It used to be that if you had a bone cancer or a tumor on a bone, the standard course of treatment was amputation," said Bob Rigney, CEO of the American Association of Tissue Banks. "Now they can actually replace the bone, and with rehabilitation the person can be almost good as new."

Once a donor's parts are removed, the body must be reconstructed for transport and, in many cases, prepared for an open-casket funeral. Without prosthetics, the body would be limp, unsightly and unmanageable. Tissue-procurement agencies consider the final presentation of a donor's body critical to ensuring future donors.

In the 1980s, funeral homes used wooden dowels, cut to fit, to provide support in the bodies of donors.

"Sometimes it would work out OK," said Melissa Williams, funeral services and forensic liaison for Gift of Hope, "but it didn't really provide a significant amount of support."

An enterprising Wisconsin man then came up with adjustable prosthetics made of PVC pipe, which became widely used because they were sturdier and more flexible than the wood dowels.

About three years ago, however, as the number of people who chose to be cremated increased nationally, crematories began complaining about the PVC prosthetics. There were environmental concerns about burning the material, and many found the melted plastic was damaging their facilities.

That's when Marrell entered the picture.

Born and raised in Valparaiso, Ind., Marrell grew up close friends with his grandfather, Richard Lee Marrell. He worked afternoons in his grandfather's family restaurant, and he later worked side-by-side with him in a retail shop the elder Marrell owned, an odd place that sold just about everything. The grandfather had varied interests and was fond of quirky science news and medical innovations.

"He was a gentleman," said Marrell, 32. "You could just sit with him all day on the porch and talk. He was always busy, but it seemed like he always had time."

Marrell graduated from high school in 1990 and opted not to go to college because he wasn't sure what to study. He wanted to become a writer, so he joined the Navy seeking adventure. He wound up being trained as a surgical technologist, a key member of a surgical team.

He spent most of his six years in the Navy working with a neurosurgery team in Bethesda, Md. Then, married with two sons and a third on the way, Marrell decided against medical school.

He moved on to Gift of Hope in 2001 and became a tissue-procurement coordinator, learning the value of tissue donation and the work involved in recovering tissue. When he started hearing murmurs about problems with PVC prosthetics, he saw an opportunity.

"I figured if this was a problem in Illinois, it was a problem across the country," he said.

In black ink on white lined paper, he sketched a crude design for a rectangular wooden prosthesis, one that would be sturdy and adjustable to any length. It would be crematory-friendly, and the design would be far more rigid and versatile than the old wooden dowels.

He traveled home to Valparaiso, went into his grandfather's basement and crafted a test model. Marrell noticed that his grandfather had etched his initials, "RLM," into the tools.

In early 2003, the year that Richard Marrell II quit his job, cashed in his retirement accounts and launched his new business, Richard Lee Marrell died. Marrell named his company RLM Tissue Bank Prosthetics.

He now distributes more than 2,000 prosthetics a month to states across the country as well as England, Germany and the Netherlands.

He charges $6 to $13.35 for the pieces, which can replace leg and arm bones, knees, spines and pelvises. He puts the sawdust produced during manufacturing into muslin bags that can be used to create muscle contours in donor reconstruction.

"Sometimes I think, 'What the heck is going on? This is really weird,'" said Marrell, who hasn't had a vacation since he started the business. "We have to make these every single day ... for people who aren't even dead yet."

About the only break Marrell gets is a trip to a weekly Rotary Club meeting. He changes into a suit and tie, carefully clipping on his grandfather's cuff links.

It seems Richard Lee Marrell is always with him. His initials are burned into each wooden bone the company produces, just like they were on the tools Marrell used to make the first prosthesis.

"I'm sure he'd be proud," Marrell said.

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