Engineering Wildcat Back on His Feet With Mentor’s Help
Ian Jackson was riding his motorcycle from the University of Arizona campus to his apartment a few blocks away when a car ran a stop sign and plowed into him, dragging him 40 feet down the road. His left leg was trapped for several minutes before a group of nearby students lifted the car off him. It was Oct. 19, 2018, just four days after his 22nd birthday.
Paramedics rushed Jackson, then a biomedical engineering senior, to the Banner – University Medical Center Tucson trauma program. There, doctors uncovered one injury after another: a broken femur, tibia and fibula; unstable fractures of several vertebrae; and a mangled left foot with multiple broken bones and missing skin. Jackson was rushed to the operating room, where he underwent a spinal fusion, had rods placed in his thigh and his leg, and had pins put in place to hold his foot together. His surgery lasted 10 hours.
“When a doctor came out and started telling me all the things that were wrong, I was really shocked,” said Jackson’s father, Kerry. “He said if just one of these injuries had occurred, it would be very serious. And Ian has five of them, so it’s very, very serious.”
Three days later, Dr. Daniel Latt, an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery and biomedical engineering at UArizona and foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon at Banner – University Medicine, was wondering where his pupil was. Jackson planned to attend medical school after graduation, and he’d been shadowing Latt in his clinic for about two years. This time, Jackson didn’t show up.
Finding His Footing
It didn’t take long for Latt to realize Jackson was, in fact, at the hospital – but as a patient, rather than as an aspiring doctor. As a foot and ankle surgery specialist, Latt reviewed Jackson’s X-rays, especially of his foot, which several colleagues had mentioned may need to be amputated. When he went to visit Jackson, Latt brought along a model of a foot he could use to explain the damage.
One of Latt’s specialties is operating on patients with Charcot arthropathy, a complication of diabetes that can weaken the bones in the foot, causing recurrent fractures and severe deformity. Jackson had spent the last year observing Latt’s work with Charcot patients. Faced with the possibility of amputation, they traveled from all over the country to see Latt.
If I wasn’t a biomedical engineering major, I don’t think I would have even considered that I might be able to change the industry to be patient-focused."
“It made me realize he was doing something different,” Jackson said. “I just didn’t realize how important it would be for my life. I told him, ‘I really believe you can fix it.’ Because he fixed impossible situations.”
Dr. Lloyd Champagne, a plastic surgeon from the Arizona Center for Hand to Shoulder Surgery in Phoenix, used skin grafts to repair the outside of Jackson’s foot first. Then, Latt used plates and screws to carefully reconstruct the inside, over the course of two eight-hour surgeries.
Thanks to the efforts of these and other doctors from Banner Health, Jackson is fully on his feet today. He’s walking normally and even relearning how to run and squat. The metal in his foot has been removed, and Jackson reinstalled it on the foot model Latt brought on that first hospital visit.
“Our goal was to get him a foot that was square to the ground that he could walk on,” Latt said. “I expected it to be very stiff, and likely somewhat painful. So this is pretty amazing.”
To Excel and to Empathize
Jackson was back in class, in a wheelchair, three weeks after the accident. He finished his senior-year coursework in summer 2019, earning all A’s – except for one B, which drives him crazy.
But he wasn’t so dedicated to academics growing up in Chandler, Arizona. In fact, his GPA out of high school was too low for him to even be admitted to UArizona. His father agreed to support him through college if he majored in engineering, so Jackson started taking engineering courses at Chandler-Gilbert Community College. He was surprised to find how much he liked it.
“I started to see the world differently,” he said. “That’s what was really exciting for me.”
After a year of community college, Jackson earned a Phi Theta Kappa transfer tuition scholarship to study biomedical engineering at UArizona.
He excelled as a Wildcat, doing clinical rotations in Latt’s laboratory, completing a research fellowship at the University of Michigan and working in a lab with Sean Limesand of the UArizona School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences. Medical school was on the horizon. But since the agony of the accident, the humbling recovery process and a realization of how difficult it is to understand others’ pain, he’s learned there is more to life than success.
“I feel like this is the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “The crash was an opportunity to really understand what’s important in my life, and the man I want to be.”
Steps Toward a Better Future
Jackson has decided to hold off on medical school since the accident, though he hasn’t eliminated it as an option. His experience gave him lots of ideas about how to make hospitals more comfortable for patients, like a design for a more comfortable catheter, and an improved hospital bed that can identify pressure points on patients to prevent ulcers. He plans to build a specialized design laboratory where he can bring his inventions to life.
“The feeling of hopelessness when you’re in the hospital every day is honestly awful,” Jackson said. “If I could just produce devices that make a person’s experience one degree better, that’s worth it.”
He’s even thought about partnering with schools to provide K-12 students a chance to gain hands-on engineering experience. After all, his engineering education played a part in getting him to where he is today.
“If I wasn’t a biomedical engineering major, I don’t think I would have even considered that I might be able to change the industry to be patient-focused,” he said.