Scalpel, please: Terril, Iowa, entrepreneur finds niche in surgical training tools

TERRIL, Iowa | When Dari Dingel-Fehr sold her third business, she vowed she’d never go into business again. She went back to school to study surgical and pharmacy technology.

That was five years ago. And Dingel-Fehr now is 30 months into her fifth business, Mock Medical, which is gearing up to manufacture and sell training instruments to be used by surgical technology students.

Dingel-Feher says that as a surg-tech student at Iowa Lakes Community College, she couldn’t understand why students should have to pay up to $4,000 for a major kit of operating room instruments that they’d never use outside the classroom. The cost of the instruments added greatly to the one-year certification program’s tuition cost of about $6,500.

Her solution is to make the equipment with a less-expensive alloy instead of surgical-grade steel that allows for sterilization, which is not required in the classroom. It saves students more than 90 percent of that equipment expense.

DIVERSE BACKGROUND

Dingel-Fehr’s first career was in graphics and marketing in Sioux Falls. She then became a part of a chiropractic clinic before opening Wild Child, a chain of children’s clothing and toy store that grew to locations in Laurens, Carroll, Okoboji, Spirit Lake and Spencer before she sold them.

“It got a little big on me,” Dingel-Fehr said. “When I sold the five stores, the new owner closed all but the Spirit Lake outlet. It broke my heart. But it’s part of business. You can’t get attached to them, I guess. They’re kinda like kids. You start them and sell them. And I really loved that one.”

Now, in addition to her start-up endeavor, Dingel-Fehr is operating The Coffee Shop in Milford because she realized that with a young family she wouldn’t be able to pursue a career in the medical field until her daughters, now 8 and 11, were more self-sufficent.

Dingel-Fehr last year earned the $5,000 first prize in the Iowa Lakes Corridor’s “Dream Big Grow Here” regional competition. She also got second place — and a $1,000 prize — in the statewide competition last month, where 223 businesses competed. 

INSTRUCTORS APPRECIATE IDEA

Iowa Lakes lab assistant-clinical coordinator Mary Westphalen said the less expensive surgical kits fill a need. While Iowa Lakes has six major kits for classroom use, “students have to learn all their instruments in a lab setting, and only during the day when we’re open for lab hours, instead of taking a kit home and learning on their own time,” Westphalen said.

Program coordinator-instructor Dana Grafft and lab assistant-clinical coordinator said the kits are keys to the success of students. 

“What you need to get with instrumentation is that practice of opening and closing the clamps and other things with manual dexterity. That takes practice,” Grafft said. “If students have their own trays, they can literally set up mock cases in their living rooms the night before they go in to do a procedure.”

Grafft says it “has really been fun to see the development of the Mock Medical instrument kits. We looked at different instruments and know one was too light in weight, then find that magic solution that was going to make the perfect instrument. And now she’s got it.”

Keeping the weight and balance of each instrument meant using a metal alloy, instead of even less expensive plastic tools “that didn’t have enough weight or rigidity needed for the clamps to lock,” Dingel-Fehr said. “When you pass the instruments, you have to be able to, with one hand, click them open with one fluid motion.”

Classification of the instruments is also important. One of the training aids that is a part of the Mock Medical kits, but lacking on the actual instruments, is color-coding of different categories. And sharp surfaces are purposely dull, but also color-coded to indicate the sharp edges.

The 40-year-old entrepreneur says she and her investors will have to come up with about $200,000 before mass-producing and selling the Mock Medical kits. But, Dingel-Fehr said, “with 20,000 students entering the surgery technology field in the U.S. each year, the market is ready, because it’s not really feasible for most students to spend about $3,800 on a kit.”

MANY KIT PARTS

Multiple pieces of the same instrument are necessary in the kits, as the surgical processes require more than one of a particular instrument, Dingel-Fehr said. “A routine appendectomy, for instance, uses four clamps that are lined up on a tray, in order of their use, in advance of the procedure. Other pieces are placed on a back tray in case they are needed later.”

“The whole goal, is that students have to reach into their kit and lay out in order the correct instruments they will need for a particular procedure — in the correct order.”

“Techs have to be able to hand that surgeon the instrument he needs before he knows he needs it. The students need to know how to do the actual surgery, even though they are not doing it.”

It even makes a difference if a surgeon is left or right-handed, she said.

EXPANDED MARKET

In exposing her now patent-pending idea throughout the region, Dingel-Fehr says she has found there’s more than just a college student market for Mock Medical kits. “Now that I’ve been speaking and in competitions, I’ve had surgical nurses who want to get the educational tools into their hospitals for continuing education. That’s added a whole new dimension to the marketing.”

“When I first went in to this I had the one target market. Now my business plan has eight target markets,” including hospitals, advanced medical students, and several other areas,” she said.

Dingel-Fehr hopes to have kits ready for students entering surg-tech programs this fall, using the Internet as her salesroom. “It’s the same way most students buy their textbooks,” she said.

“And the potential market is mind-blowing.”

That makes the odds of Dingel-Fehr ever practicing the operating skills she learned at Iowa Lakes very slim, she admits.

“I was there. But I might be very busy in the time ahead.”