Former cleaner turns technician, author and catheter inventor

26 August 2002
BRIAN Sasman, who started his career at UCT as a cleaner in the medical school 38 years ago, describes himself as "a man of limited education". But the phrase is used proudly and is a measure against which his remarkable achievements can be gauged.

While Sasman's formal education at the Roman Catholic (RC) Mission School in Kalk Bay may have ended abruptly at standard six due to illness (he contracted tetanus), his naturally sharp and ingenious inventor's brain has seen his career in the Department of Anaesthetics rise like the proverbial mercury.

Today he is a research technician in the Department, with a fistful of inventions to his credit (multi-lumen catheters, endotracheal tubes and the like). He is also a co-author of a technical paper in the South African Journal of Science (Vol 92, Sept 1996). This describes a catheter designed to measure intra-vascular pressure during renal arterial perfusion in pigs.

The inventor's informal apprenticeship began under Professor Gaisford Harrison 25 years ago (Harrison was conducting research on the effects of anaesthetics on pigs. This was to lead to a major discovery: the occurrence of malignant hyperpyrexia in humans, a fatal reaction to halothane anaesthetic, and the subsequent development of the life-saving antidote, dantrolene).

"I watched everything and asked a lot of questions," Sasman recalls. He also noticed the problems encountered when small laboratory animals were intubated. Using his unique and quiet genius, Sasman designed and built various catheters and instruments for specific animals for use during the anaesthetising process.

Not surprisingly, the testimonials to Sasman's ingenuity are numerous and swell his personal file. Professor Mike James, Head of the Department of Anaesthesia, mentions Sasman's "unusual expertise" in the field of animal anaesthesia. "He has shown remarkable inventiveness in meeting the many challenges that various researchers have put to him in developing 'home-made' devices to assist their experimental work."

James' views are echoed by Professor Del Kahn, Head of the Division of General Surgery. "Brian is a major asset to the Faculty and we are extremely grateful for his services. Over the years he has developed special expertise in anaesthetising animals and every now and again we require some innovation from him. A year or two ago we were involved in some research on rats. This required a general anaesthetic and Brian designed specially small endotracheal tubes and a modified ventilation system.

"More recently we embarked on a project involving liver transplantation in ducks. The anaesthetic technique had not been described previously. Brian had to devise techniques for induction of anaesthesia, which was not that easy, and special endotracheal tubes as well as mechanisms for ventilation. Again, this he achieved using very innovative means."

Sasman once assisted Associate Professor of Anaesthetics, Berend Mets, in the study of the effects of different anaesthetic agents on liver function. Sasman was instrumental in designing the complicated equipment needed to anaesthetise 25 rats at a time, using different anaesthetic techniques. "His active participation in the design of the experiment was more characteristic of a research colleague than of a research technician," Mets reported.

The eldest of 10 children, Sasman says his pioneering drive resulted from contracting tetanus as a boy. There was no cure at the time and doctors at Groote Schuur used experimental techniques to save his life (he still has the scars of the tracheotomy).

"I'm blessed with insight," he said. "I can see how to make things work. I see the 'loopholes' where the others don't." Many of his inventions are made "from stuff in the lab". "I don't waste time," he adds.

Sasman has also developed surgical skills, deftly performing laparotomies on various animals for liver biopsies and plasma samples for the analysis of liver function. But his relationship with animals is far from merely clinical. Colleagues have mentioned his empathy with their animal patients. "His rapport with animals is superb," confirms Professor David Baskin.

"I suppose my love of animals started when I was put in charge of my grandmother's chickens, quite a responsibility," Sasman quips. He hopes to open a nursery and touchfarm for children one day.

For the moment he has a new challenge: working with Professor Del Kahn doing new research on mice, on perfecting a new bypass technique being investigated using very small mice. Sasman moves from department to department, "wherever they need me". "It's a very exciting job."

"He exhibits a special kind of pride in a job well done that is rare," says Baskin as a final tribute. Like his view of his unusual success, Sasman's reaction to praise is characteristically modest: "I give God all the glory."

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