Swollen fingers? ER doctor, Dalhousie students invent ring removal pump

When an 88-year-old man showed up at hospital in Dartmouth, N.S., Thursday, he'd been wearing his wedding ring for 40 years.

He went to the right place.

Instead of cutting it off, the emergency department doctor at Dartmouth General used a device invented by one of his colleagues to help temporarily decrease the swelling on the man's finger. The physician was able to slide the ring off in minutes.

For Dr. Kevin Spencer, a solution to stuck rings is long overdue. He said he sees patients with stuck rings in the ER at least once a week.

"Most operations require jewellery to be removed," he said. "It's because of a couple of reasons, but one of the most common reasons is because of the electricity used in cautery, and so rings and metallic devices can arc and cause burns and sparks, that kind of stuff."

Steve Lawrence/CBC

It's not just operations. Some of his patients are only at the hospital because their rings are stuck. He said people in nursing homes are sometimes transported by ambulance to the hospital for that reason.

"The first thing people try to do usually at home is just try to pull it off with some soap or other lubrication. And often, when they do that, they make the swelling worse."

In 2017, Spencer was asked to judge the Dalhousie University Capstone projects. That's where engineering students are tasked to develop a product that will solve a real-life problem.

One, in particular, caught his eye. It was a large mechanical pump that could squeeze fluid out of a finger, temporarily shrinking it to remove a ring.

"I said, 'Wow, this is something that we can actually use in the real world,'" he said.

Carolyn Ray/CBC

While the idea for the product was there, Spencer partnered with the students and made some dramatic changes.

Their product now uses a simple air pump attached to a ring that slips on a finger, somewhat resembling a mini air-pressure cuff. The process takes about five minutes for the typical case.

Spencer said as they started showing off their prototype, most people asked why it hadn't been done before.

Two years later, he and his team have now established a business, Ring Rescue, and their made-in-Nova Scotia solution will be commercially available in mid-August.

They've received clearance from Health Canada and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to move forward.

Already, they've had interest from hospitals and jewellers in nine different countries.

Steve Lawrence/CBC

It's all been exciting for Patrick Hennessey, whose final-year school project at Dalhousie has become his career.

"This was this was like a pipe dream," he said of how much Ring Rescue has grown. "We wanted to have a cool project ... but this kind of turned out incredibly well."

The icing on the cake, said Hennessey, was when they were approached by a physician with a unique challenge: a patient was wearing a Toronto Blue Jays World Series ring, and they were trying everything in their power to remove it without destroying it.

"We sent a device up to Toronto to have him remove his ring before he had to go in for surgery," said Hennessey, who laughed as he refused to name the patient.

Even if Ring Rescue ends up being a commercial success, Spencer said he has no intention of leaving his job at the emergency department. Juggling patients and a business, he said, is just part of the fun.