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This Tri-City doctor gives away what he makes. Defense Secretary Mattis thought that deserved a medal

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

Secretary of Defense James Mattis brought a welcome spotlight to one of Washington’s most unusual manufacturers Monday when he presented Dr. Lewis Zirkle with the department’s Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

The award celebrated the Richland doctor’s work to bring modern fracture care and training to third world settings by building a nonprofit manufacturing business in Richland that’s supported by local donations.

“It’s unique for a Richland guy to be honoring a Richland guy,” Mattis joked during the presentation.

Mattis, a Richland native, thanked Zirkle for his devotion and for taking to heart lessons the orthopedic surgeon learned as an Army surgeon in Vietnam — that a badly injured person can return to normal functions.

“You’re part of the reason America will stay a great country, because you prove we’re a very, very good country,” Mattis said, noting that Zirkle has avoided the normal path of well-heeled retirees.

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“He was not going to places with four-star hotels and five-star restaurants,” Mattis said. “He was going to places that have been dealt a pretty rough hand.”

Zirkle gained a measure of local fame during his 20 years in practice in Richland, becoming the go-to physician for broken bones and orthopedic issues.

His profile soared after 1999, when he established SIGN Fracture Care International to focus on a humanitarian crisis: Broken bones that are a painful inconvenience in first world settings can be life-threatening calamities in developing ones.

His profession made him uniquely prepared to jump in. SIGN manufactures medical-grade surgical implants that Zirkle designed to treat fractures and skeletal injuries in settings where X-ray equipment isn’t always available to guide surgeons. He and his team created the patented technology and secured FDA approval.

SIGN has trained 5,000 surgeons in 50 countries. Collectively, they have treated more than 210,000 patients.

Its global impact has been documented, but SIGN Fracture Care impacts the Tri-City economy through its high-tech manufacturing plant as well.

“We are thrilled to have them here,” said Carl Adrian, president and CEO of the Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC). Adrian called SIGN a “showcase” company that visitors want to see for its high-precision machining capabilities and global footprint.

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Manufacturing jobs generate two to three jobs and are highly prized in the economic development world.

SIGN employs 42 at the Richland plant where it makes the implantable tools, which it gives away.

Its nonprofit status sets SIGN apart from virtually every other manufacturer in Washington state. It earns virtually no money through sales, relying instead on donations and grants from foundations, corporate supporters and individual givers for $3.75 million of its $5.4 million budget.

Kiwanis Clubs are major supporters. So too are foundations and any number of corporate citizens, including Battelle, FedEx, Kadlec Regional Medical Center and others.

But spokesman Ryan Smith said individual gifts equal or exceed the foundation support. And many come from Tri-Citians with relationships to Zirkle through his medical practice.

“They are definitely the lifeline of our work,” he said.

SIGN welcomes donations through its website, signfracturecare.org. The organization is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, meaning it is tax-exempt under IRS rules.

SIGN isn’t sounding alarms, but the nonprofit world is watching giving trends. The tax reform bill President Donald Trump signed in December dramatically raises exemption levels. For most small donors, charitable contributions may no longer result in a lower income tax bill.

Smith said it’s too early to know if the tax reform bill will affect donations but the organization is optimistic it won’t dull interest in helping.

“We’re all trying to figure it out,” he said. “But we think people will still respond.”

SIGN has a 20-year partnership with the Seattle Foundation, which directs donations to a foundation to benefit the nonprofit.

Fidelma McGinn, vice president of philanthropic services, called SIGN a unique social enterprise that has won fans for its work.

“We’re proud to be a partner with them,” she said.

Trivia for Mattis watchers: No word on if Mattis visited the Spudnut shop during his visit to Richland on Monday. He did visit McDonald’s, he told the crowd. Mattis is scheduled to return to the Tri-Cities May 3 to give the keynote address at the Tri-Citian of the Year banquet. Organizers are accepting nominations through April 1 at tricitianoftheyear.org.

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© 2018 Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.