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May 03, 1987|ROBERT HANLEY | Times Staff Writer

There was a time when all Ron Luther wanted to do was fly. And in the tense months that led up to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, that's exactly what Luther--then a Marine Corps captain--did for a living.

All that changed one night when, somewhere off the coast of Virginia, Luther tried to land his jet fighter on the bobbing deck of an aircraft carrier in preparation for an upcoming reconnaissance flight over Cuba.

Instead of coming to a speedy stop, Luther's RF-8 Crusader careened across the flight deck and plunged over the side--with Luther still strapped into the cockpit.

With his left arm nearly torn off in the crash, Luther spent 13 frigid minutes treading water waiting for a nearby destroyer to fish him out. Robbed of the use of his arm, Luther's military career came to an end that cold March night.

In the years that have passed, Luther has regained nearly complete use of his arm. And he sets aside a few hours each week to fly the bright red biplane in which he owns a partial interest.

But flying isn't what makes Ron Luther tick anymore.

They Even Beat Flying

"My passion is really catheters," said the founder, president and occasional janitor of Luther Medical Products Inc. "Given the choice between flying and making catheters, I'd pick catheters."

Tiny by any measure, Luther Medical has only about a dozen workers. And its sales last year didn't even break the $500,000 mark. But despite its small size, the Santa Ana company has built a reputation for pluck and innovation.

And pluck is what it has taken for Luther Medical to stay afloat.

Despite a couple of potentially rewarding joint ventures with large conglomerates, Luther Medical has always been the bridesmaid but never the bride.

Three years ago, a unit of the Warner Lambert Co. bought options to buy Luther Medical stock and acquired licenses for Luther Medical products. That relationship ended, however, when Warner Lambert got rid of its Deseret Medical Inc. unit, taking the New Jersey drug giant out of the catheter business--and out of Luther's life altogether.

More recently, talks that might have led to the acquisition of Luther Medical by the BOC Group Ltd., a London industrial conglomerate, ended after tests indicated that a new Luther Medical catheter material was too sensitive to alcohol for European standards.

Though Luther Medical has had its share of disappointments, the company's unique product line continues to generate interest, even if profits have yet to materialize.

For instance, Luther's patented soft catheter is made from a plastic material that is stiff enough to insert into a patient's vein while dry, but softens and expands once it becomes wet, thereby allowing a better fit with less damage to the wall of the vein.

A recently introduced version of that catheter is designed for use specifically with AIDS patients and uses a single, multiple-walled tube to deliver more than one medication or nutritional solution at a time.

"The object is to make them last as long as possible because these people are so debilitated that they often don't have the mechanics for blood clotting and fighting infection," Luther said. "You don't want to put any more holes in them than you have to."

Perhaps Luther's most interesting product is his unique, patented "peel-away" needle. Unlike with conventional needles, the catheter is actually fed through the Luther needle, which is then removed from the patient and peeled off the tubing like a banana.

"I would certainly say that Ron really has been an inventive person," said Pieter Halter, editor of Biomedical Business International magazine, a Tustin journal. "He's an idea man, no doubt."

Though few who are familiar with Luther Medical will dispute that reputation for innovation, some analysts say that while long on potential, the company for too long has been short on delivery. After seven years, they say, Luther Medical remains little more than a mere mom-and-pop operation.

"That company has had a lot of promise, but I don't see the cash register knocking anyone down over there," said Jules Marx, a health care research analyst for the New York investment firm of D. H. Blair & Co.

A bearlike man with a taste for golf and Havana cigars, Luther makes no bones about the fact that there has been more thin than thick during the seven years that Luther Medical has been in existence.

Kept Company Afloat

Indeed, Luther Medical stock has kept the company afloat for the most part, Luther said. The company, which has lost more than $3.2 million since its founding in 1980, raised a total of about $3.9 million through stock and debenture sales, from which it has been funding its operations.

Luther, who claims not to have paid himself for three years, said he has sold some of his own stock--he holds about 12% of Luther Medical's outstanding shares--to meet living expenses. Occasionally, others have gotten the shares too.

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