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A registered nurse for more than forty years, Edna Zawacki has seen and done it all. After working as a volunteer at a clinic near the Height-Ashbury district in San Francisco during the 1960s for a short period, she moved to Grosse Ile, Michigan and spent the better part of the last four decades at Seaway Hospital.

Now 73 years of age, Zawacki is on a mission to help young nurses avoid an injustice she experienced, one she fears may continue to harm thousands of nurses in the future.

Since the early 1960s, Zawacki has created designs and prototypes for a variety of medical products, including a disposable bed pan, a urinary output container, and open window suture packaging, all of which were submitted to major health care corporations and are now on the market. Yet because she didn’t fully understand patenting procedures, she wasn’t properly compensated for her work.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone ever again,” says Zawacki. “I’m afraid that nurses who make important innovations to medical technologies are still being taken advantage of.”

Growing up in a small town in rural Quebec gave Zawacki a naturally trusting disposition. “When you’re a young girl in a village of only 300 people, you think that a person’s word is sacred. You just automatically trust everyone.”

The first time Zawacki was in a hospital was at the age of nine, when having an appendectomy. It was then she became interested in medicine and nursing. She eventually made her way through school and graduated from Providence Hospital School of Nursing in 1955, later adding a Bachelor of Applied Science from Siena Heights College in Adrian, Michigan in 1986.

She was also an active union organizer with the Michigan Nurses Economic Security Organization, a division of the Michigan Nurses Association, at the Metropolitan Hospital in Detroit during the late 1960s and early 1970s, helping to establish one of the most advanced labor contracts for nurses at that time in the entire state.

A Young Woman’s Journey into Intellectual Property

Zawacki began submitting designs to medical corporations when she was in her late twenties. She originally trusted the private sector and believed they would pay her royalties for the innovations she developed, as they promised. Instead, they took her ideas and ran, making untold profit from her work. “I was so young and naive,” she says. “Written contracts rarely entered the discussion. I just believed what they told me.”

In 1963, Zawacki designed an intake and output plastic container that she submitted to the American Hospital Supply Corporation in Evanston, Illinois. They told her it was impractical and refused to market it. She regrets failing to patent the innovation herself, especially since another nurse patented almost the same design in Texas a few years later.

In 1966, while working at Notre Dame Hospital in San Francisco as a head nurse on a surgical unit, Zawacki designed a type of stackable bedpan that was again submitted to the American Hospital Supply Corporation. She worked with Tom J. Cowley, Assistant Director of New Product Planning and Marketing Research, and signed a disclosure agreement that stated she could not offer the idea to another corporation. After much deliberation, the product ended up on the market by the late 1960s. Yet while the stackable bedpan has become a staple of the hospital environment, Zawacki never received a penny for her work, and when she sought redress, she was ignored. “At that time, I didn’t have the finances to hire an attorney,” she says.

While her naiveté explains why she was so vulnerable to being deceived, it doesn’t explain the consistent deception on the part of corporate representatives. Clearly greed was involved, but Zawacki posits a second factor: sexism. “I actually thought that a petite, twenty-something blonde with dimples could be taken seriously by middle-aged, male professionals in the world of business. Did I ever learn a lesson,” she says.

Zawacki faced similar problems in 1985 when she spoke to Frank Ryan and Robert P. Hickey of Ethicon, a division of Johnson & Johnson, about the development of a specialized suture package. Her new design was simple, but included one added feature: eight plastic, see-through windows that allowed nurses to count how many needles there were before dropping them onto the surgical field. Hickey told her she was creative and saw something unique about the innovation, yet stated that the package was “unworkable” because the windows would destroy the sutures. A year later, however, two Ethicon employees came forward and notified Zawacki that the company was marketing her innovation.

When her lawyer, Doug Springle, wrote to them to ask them about the product, they received a letter back from a Johnson & Johnson lawyer, James Riesenfeld, stating that Ryan and Hickey had no recollection of utilizing any of the work they received from her. “I couldn’t believe it. They acted as if I didn’t even exist,” she says. “And again, I didn’t have the finances to take it to court. The lawyer’s fees alone would have bankrupted me.”

Zawacki today still has many of the original drawings of her innovations. Yet at this point in her life, she has very little trust in medical corporations, which she says “too often exploit the work of decent, creative people who are only trying to help those in need.”

“These companies descend on nurses’ conventions every year, handing out questioners to learn from nurses how to improve their medical products. And what do the nurses get in return? A stuffed toy to give to their children or grandchildren. How many medical corporations would do this if nurses were predominately male?” Zawacki asks.

Edna Zawacki with her designs today

What Innovators Should Do

“Nurses are the true innovators in the health field since they work with the products on a daily basis. It is they who fully understand the best ways to improve on existing medical technologies,” she says. “I just want young nurses to understand their rights.”

Another danger nurses should be aware of are patent scammers, who will ask for an innovator’s intellectual property and a fee so they can supposedly “register” his or her patent. Complete with “official-looking” correspondence containing fancy-sounding prose, they convince unsuspecting innovators to blindly hand over their ideas. Both the American Intellectual Property Law Association and the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization have published warnings on their websites about these frauds.

The first and best place to go to with any innovation is the United States Patent and Trademark Office, a federal agency under the Department of Commerce that is ultimately responsible for issuing patents and registering trademarks. All the information one needs about registering intellectual property is located on its website at www.uspto.gov.

Finally, nurses should always use a “nondisclosure” or confidentiality agreement when disclosing any innovative idea to a corporation. Most companies will want to use their own agreements, so nurses should always have a lawyer read the agreement first before signing it to ensure they maintain ownership rights to the innovation. This is not a substitute for a patent or patent pending, but an important additional protection.

“Today, creative nurses can’t just be innovators. They have to be smart and savvy businesspeople, too,” warns Zawacki. “There’s nothing wrong per se about working with a corporation to develop a new innovation. But remember to be your own boss, keep your ideas close to you, make a prototype, and then have it patented directly with the government with your name on it. Don’t do as I did, or you may end up with regrets.”

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