Five Engineering Marvels You Only Notice After You Break Your Back

I broke my back last week on a skiing vacation.

If you must know, I got off the chairlift, toppled down the ramp, and did a big smashing flip, the first time I’ve ever taken flight on skis. I landed face up, enveloped in snow, cold, pain, and fear . But before long, I was distracted by all the well-designed products that I soon encountered over the next few days. I do, after all, work for a 3D CAD software company.

Here are five engineering marvels you really only appreciate fully when you break your back:

Field Extraction ‘burrito’: spineboard, head immobilizer, cervical collar, straps and litter cover

After a detailed assessment, the first responders moved me onto a spineboard, immobilized my head in a warm, snug contraption, strapped me in, and then folded the tortilla (a canvas covering) over me. I dozed peacefully as they guided my inert form down the slope.

Rotational plastic molding made it all possible.

Earlier accident victims and first responders had to use unwieldy, hard, heavy, and body fluid-absorbing wooden boards to immobilize the spine. Rotational plastic molding, on the other hand, made possible the 3D design and manufacture of large, hollow plastic products – like spineboards.

The author on her spineboard in the ski patrol hut. Not shown, members of the excellent Smuggler’s Notch Ski Patrol.

My spineboard was filled with polyurethane foam and may have been reinforced with pultruded plastic or carbon plastic rods. It was long-lasting, stable, lightweight, impervious to fluids, amenable to any number of strap configurations, able to float, translucent in x-ray machines and possessed of hand grips. Few pieces of EMT equipment have gotten so much engineering attention.

Patient Transportation: the gurney or transport stretcher

We traveled to the ER where the medical staff slid me expertly on to a gurney.

A variant of the litter, a gurney is a wheeled cot or stretcher that caregivers use to transport patients safely, quickly and smoothly from the field and inside the hospital. Emphasis on smooth and easy. Imagine a patient’s agony if staff had to shove the gurney to get it started.

Modern gurneys can be moved up and down with the press of a foot, have detachable railings and adjustable backrests, can be cleaned in a flash, are easy for any caregiver to maneuver, and , most importantly, can hold patients weighing many hundreds of pounds. Some gurneys are motorized. When I get better, I am going to race gurneys.

Patient Lateral Transfer Aids

Moving patients with potential spinal injuries is serious business for both medical staff and patient, and especially so when moving a patient from a gurney to an examining table for a diagnostic test. The answer is a hovercraft of sorts, a veritable swimming pool mattress on steroids. It’s the closest thing to a magic carpet I’ll ever ride.

Staff use this device to transfer you sideways on a cushion of air. As this device inflates, it cradles you, conforming to your body without putting pressure on any point. I hardly knew staff were moving me to the CAT scan table.


An example of the ‘magic carpet’ at work. It was bliss! [Image from]

CAT (computer-assisted tomographic) Scanner or Heroes of Engineering and Science

Once I was on the CAT scan table, the table slid me smoothly into the scanner. The scanner made comforting whirring noises as it rotated around me, taking numerous x-rays to produce detailed images of my beleaguered lumbar #2 vertebra.

British engineer Godfrey Hounsfield of EMI Laboratories, England and physicist Allan Cormack of Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts invented the CAT scanner in 1972. CAT scanning entered wide-spread use about 1980.


A CAT scanner and table. Without the author. [Source CAT scanner, by liz west from Boxborough, MA, via Wikimedia Commons.]

Heading Home: Emesis bag

My ER nurses kindly advised me that the combination of pain, meds and “general excitement” could make me vomit on the way home. The solution for this nemesis? An emesis bag – a blue disk that untwisted to become a foot-long plastic bag with a notched collar for easily closure. No grease-proof air sickness sack for me: I had a high-class vomit bag. I took several.

The emesis bag is anything but a casual accessory. This product must have a large opening and markings to measure the contents expelled and open and close quickly and intuitively to reduce odor and prevent contamination. Needless to say, it’s impermeable. The only shortcoming? It didn’t match my outfit.

I’m expecting a full recovery in a few weeks. Meanwhile, I am sharpening my knowledge of the physics of skiing and writing a thank-you note to the ER staff at Copley Hospital in Morrisville, VT.

[Ed. PTC customers, like Stryker (gurneys) and GE Healthcare (CT scanners), design many of the devices you encounter when you find yourself in the hospital. Sign up for our newsletter, PTC Express, to meet even more PTC customers each month.]

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