Written By: Jacob Poliskey
This is the story of an inventor who built a lead shield that hangs from overhead. It is a story of someone working with limited resources and little help, motivated by necessity, and achieving unconventional success. And it all started in the interventional suite when Dr. Chet Rees developed back pain.
This Short Story is based on an August 2020 interview between the author and Dr. Chet Rees MD, the inventor of Zero Gravity Lead Shielding1. The Society of Interventional Radiology does not promote this product and has no financial disclosures.
Dr. Chet Rees, a practicing interventional radiologist, always had ideas for possibly useful medical devices, but spent over two decades without finding the time to develop them. Projects would stall in the early fabrication stage. He was raising kids, busy at work with a full clinical load and a body of manuscript publications and scientific presentations, and hesitant to spend a lot of personal money on outside projects. This went on for years, leaving little more than a lot of ideas scratched out on paper and a pile of junk at his house.
In his case, necessity was the mother of invention. While in his late 40s, he developed severe back pain. He was concerned, as a long career was ahead of him, and the thought of working through debilitating back pain was not appealing.
“What if this gets worse and I can’t deal with this?” he thought. He contemplated retraining into diagnostic imaging, but wasn’t met with warm and fuzzy feelings in his group; he had been out of reading images for a long time.
Then he started to think about the lead that hung over his body for hours at a time.
“Why do we have to wear this lead? It’s heavy but not very protective.” A long time went by, and Dr. Rees thought a lot about it—about all the radiation coming through, hitting his face and his head, and about his back pain.
So Dr. Rees set out—to invent something new? No. He began to search for a product that solved his needs. But, in his own words, “I got nowhere. There was nothing,” and that was when he figured he needed to make something himself.
He started brainstorming contraptions. He didn’t want something on the floor getting underfoot. It had to be a shield suspended in front of you that you’d walk into. It had to move freely, up and down, leaning forward where you didn’t notice it too much. His first epiphany happened when he discovered commercial instruments called balancers. These were used to pick up heavy assembly line tools with ease, such as a two-hundred pound power drill. Then he started looking at cranes to move the shield around effortlessly. How you could adapt a crane to go into the suite?
Looking at these different components, Dr. Rees started building in his garage. A short time later, he had built rails into his ceiling and integrated a boom with suspenders, fasteners, and an apron hanging from a frame. The frame had a face-shield mounted on the apron, and the apron itself was extra thick, covering his eyes and body better than any wrap-around lead skirt ever could.
With a workable prototype in hand, he did what anybody suffering from back pain would do: bring it directly to work! “I did not begin this with the intention of making money at all. As things progressed, I applied for a provisional patent before the ability to do so would have been lost, but my main goal remained to bring it into the hospital,” where he could put it in the room where he did most of his procedures.
What happened when he asked to put it into the interventional radiology suite? “Everybody I talked to shot me down. Nobody was candid,” Dr. Rees said, adding that they just didn’t answer him or would stop talking to him about it.
Eventually he was uncomfortably referred to the hospital’s lawyers.
“No way can we do this,” said the lawyers.
“Why not?” countered Dr. Rees.
“Because we can’t just bring a doctor’s contraption in here.”
“It’s been done in the past!”
“Times are changing.”
“You bring new equipment in here all the time!”
“Yeah, but that’s from real companies.”
“I have a company!” — the solo Dr. Rees had LLC status.
“Yeah…but not really. You’re not the kind of company we’re interested in.”
All this work, and nothing that he or anybody else could use. But this rejection was a pivotal moment and a blessing in disguise. This was when Dr. Rees had the realization, “I can’t use this to prolong my career unless it becomes a marketable, profitable product.”
Later reflecting on the episode, he said, “The hospital was right to not let me put my own device in there. They knew what they were doing—liability issues and so on. I don’t fault them at all.”
He set out to make his invention marketable. He showed it around. He made movies about it. Some people thought it was fantastic. Others thought it was boxy: it looked too industrial to fit in a hospital, much less a sterile procedure room. The last complaint was once you put the apron on, sure, it moved perfectly—up and down and around—but you were stuck. Because the boom was only so long, you couldn’t walk out of the room without breaking sterile scrub.
Dr. Rees set out to fix these major hurdles, enabling the user to enter and exit the lead shield seamlessly without any change in the sterile field. “Sometimes when you invent something,” Dr. Rees clearly instructs, “you’re not doing one invention, you’re inventing a hundred. Every week you need a new invention to get around a problem.”
The eureka moment solving this must-have arrived one day: by outfitting a lightweight vest, worn like a shirt under the sterile drape, with a magnet that engaged the floating lead shield, “you can engage it sterile and leave it sterile…So easy on, easy off.” He drew it up and made prototypes.
“It worked fabulously.”
The last key step was making it look pretty. Dr. Rees was skiing one day when he noticed that the new ski lift he was riding had a curved arm holding up the chair. Thinking that the chairlift looked stylish, he copied the design by bending a metal rod himself and carefully hanging his lead shield on it. A new paint job finished the affair.
A video of the floating lead shield in action was a hit. Finally.
Two years later, after licensing the device to an industrial partner, it started selling everywhere. In Dr. Rees’ words, “A lot of people are very thankful…People who were in boats like mine [with my back pain] or [who were] very concerned about the radiation…Badge readings have plummeted down to near nothing and they feel safer and more comfortable. People can do more cases and do not have to retire early. It’s very gratifying to hear how it’s affected lives.”
With the device installed in his own lab, most of Dr. Rees’ back pain resolved itself over the last two to three years. True success.
1. Rees, C. (2020, August 6). Personal interview.
All images used with permission and courtesy of Dr. Chet Rees