Only later, in hindsight, was Thomas Shaw able to identify the turning point in his life. When it happened, in 1989, he was just sitting in his living room, watching television. The TV news segment was about a doctor in California who had contracted HIV from an accidental needlestick injury. The doctor complained that her illness should have been preventable and that the engineers who designed hypodermic syringes and other needle-bearing medical devices didn’t care about saving the lives of doctors and nurses.
That doctor’s complaint stung Tom Shaw almost like a slap in the face. “Wait a minute,” he thought. “I’m an engineer and I care!” True, he wasn’t a syringe design engineer, but that would change. The next morning, Shaw called a pharmacist friend and asked him for a supply of standard syringes. “I was a structural engineer,” said Shaw. “I took the syringes to the office and started looking at them, and thinking about the logistics of the problem and what the challenges would be to try to really fix it. ” What would the perfect syringe look like?” he asked himself.
Tom had grown up in an unorthodox, intellectual family in Mexico and Arizona. “We six kids (three brothers and three sisters) were exhorted by our parents to try to make some kind of contribution during our lifetimes to leave the world in a little bit better shape than when we entered it. We couldn’t have had wiser or more caring parents.” The family lived in Tucson for many years.
Now back to North Texas in 1989 and the early 1990s. In a local library, Shaw found articles about accidental needlestick injury. The articles said that healthcare workers in the U.S. suffered hundreds of thousands of those injuries annually. With each stick came the chance for contracting HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, and many other bloodborne diseases. Even when no disease resulted, there were months of emotional strain before a nurse, doctor, or hospital housekeeper knew that he or she had avoided contracting a life-threatening disease.
Tom Shaw decided that the ideal syringe would contain a needle that would retract directly from the patient’s arm into the barrel of the syringe, immediately after delivering the medicine. Eventually he hit upon a way to do it that utilizes a friction ring mechanism. Engineers traditionally regard friction as a nuisance or obstacle to be overcome, but Shaw found a way to use it to his advantage.
The new syringe could be operated with just one hand, thus allowing the healthcare worker to keep the other hand literally “out of harm’s way.” That syringe greatly reduced the risk of accidental needlestick injury to healthcare workers. Shaw also had designed it to be non-reusable. Syringe reuse (whether by substance abusers or well-meaning physicians in developing nations who have very limited resources) is another way that bloodborne diseases are spread.
Shaw applied for, and received, a $50,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop one of his syringe prototypes. Later he received a Phase II grant of about $600,000 to further develop and commercialize one of his designs, and to produce 10,000 samples for clinical trials.
Thomas Shaw founded a company to manufacture his innovative syringe. He owned a small structural engineering firm in Lewisville, Texas. That organization formed the nucleus, and much of the staff, of Retractable Technologies, Inc. (RTI), which was incorporated in May of 1994 to design, manufacture, and market RTI’s VanishPoint® safety syringes. Thomas had earned a master’s degree in accounting from the nearby University of North Texas in 1993; he became RTI’s president and CEO. In 1996, Thomas Shaw and his staff used their structural engineering expertise to expedite the construction of RTI’s new manufacturing plant in Little Elm, a lakeside community north of Dallas. The plant construction (of what would later be known as Building A) was completed in just five months. By the end of that year, RTI had 15 employees. And the new company also had over 34 acres upon which to grow.
The story will be continued in our next issue.
(Parts of this article were originally published in Frisco Style magazine in 2001.)