Nurse, Heal Thy iPod: Mike Tyran Fixes People and Their Stuff

Lots of people say they can fix everything. But how many can fix people, too?

I wouldn’t have made a connection between electronics repair and nursing. But as soon as Mike Tyran told me he did both, the parallels suddenly seemed obvious: making broken things work again, learning how gadgets/bodies function at a basic level, and helping people feel better. Both also require a massive amount of specialized knowledge—which is what’s most impressive about Mike’s story, I think.

Mike is a nurse and trauma coordinator at a hospital in Texas. He is also oldturkey03, one of our community moderators on iFixit Answers, where he spends anywhere from half an hour to a couple hours a day answering people’s questions about repair. He sat down with me recently to tell me about growing up in Germany, turning old radios into iPhone speakers, and how he came to know so much about fixing people and their stuff.

Elizabeth: How did you find iFixit?

Mike: Everyone in my house had iPhones, and I thought I should get with the 21st century and get an iPod. I bought a broken one on eBay. I’d never taken one apart before, so I looked for help and found you guys through Google. I posted a question on Answers and had my answer within a few hours. Not a day later, I had the iPod going. I thought it was great how people just jumped onto it and gave me advice—strangers, people who were a little more mature, from a couple different countries. It was people offering help and assistance without getting anything in return. I thought that was really cool.

Elizabeth: When did you begin fixing things? How did you get into electronics repair?

Mike: I was born and raised in Germany. I finished high school when I was 14. At that time, after high school, you had to either take an apprenticeship or go to university. Coming from a blue-collar family, university was never an option. So I went for an apprenticeship, and I became a millwright. I learned how to fix and build machines. It was really interesting; I liked it.

Right after that, after I got my journeyman papers, I was drafted into the German army. This was when the military still drafted people. I liked it so much I stayed for almost a decade. They trained me to be a decent mechanic, a materials tech, and a machinist. I’ve repaired everything from little Volkswagon engines to 800-horsepower diesel engines to cranes… anything that moves.

I was posted in Canada in 1982 with the German army. We had a big base up there that in the interim has closed because of the Cold War, etc. So 1982 was when I got my first computer. It was a VIC-20. I thought it was just an amazing machine, all the things I could do with it. And that’s really when I got hooked on all the small electronics—the VIC-20, the Commodore 64, the Amiga. Lots of good stuff, lots of interesting stuff.

Elizabeth: Why aren’t you still a mechanic today?

Mike: After I got out of the military, I went to school to study mechanical engineering. But my heart really wasn’t in it. When you grow up in Germany at the time that I grew up, the mid- to late-’70s, males really didn’t do anything like social work, humanitarian stuff. Especially coming from a blue-collar family, you were expected to do the—how can I say this?—the manly man things. That was the expectation at the time.

Mike Tyran, iFixit Answers contributorElizabeth: So how did you go from engineering to healthcare?

Mike: Well, like I said, after the engineering, my heart really wasn’t in it. Yeah, it was fun, and it paid the bills and all, but there was no sense of fulfillment. There’s nothing nicer than when you can go home and say, “Hey, I made a difference in someone’s life.” Through friends, I became really interested in healthcare. So, after studying engineering, I went on to become an RN. I studied nursing. I really, really liked it. I’ve been doing it for almost twenty years.

Now, I’m a trauma coordinator for one of the emergency departments in one of our fine city’s hospitals. It’s an amazing thing, seeing and learning all kinds of interesting things. And I really enjoy working with people. It’s strange, because you see people at their worst, when they’re hurt. Sometimes it makes a difference just to reassure them and to be there.

It kind of reminds me of, again, you give something to people that just makes them feel better. It’s just like the Answers section. Somebody has a question that nags them and you can provide the answer, it makes them feel good. In my case, at least, I can’t talk for my colleagues, because we answer all these questions all day and it makes us feel good.

Sure, there are “one hit wonders,” people who only ask one question and we never hear from them again. But when someone comes back to say, “Hey, thanks, it worked,” it really, really is a good feeling.

Elizabeth: What’s your favorite kind of question on iFixit Answers?

Mike: I especially love to answer questions from people from other countries, other nations—having been around the world, like I said, grown up in Germany, immigrated to Canada, and immigrated to the US, I’ve met so many different people from so many different backgrounds.

On Answers, sometimes people say, “Oh, go to Radio Shack, go to WalMart,” not realizing that the person asking the question may be in Tanzania or South Korea. You know, where there is no WalMart.

Elizabeth: What are you working on repairing now?

Mike: Right now, I’m working on a Mitsubishi big screen TV that has a couple of condensers in it, which I got for something like $50.

I’ve also become very interested in radios. Through a contest, I ended up winning an old Atwater Kent radio, a model 46 from the 1930s. I really got hooked on how different it is to work on one of those behemoths. I mean, it’s something like 32 pounds. I loved the form, loved the style. It’s a really cool-looking thing. It’s a definite conversation piece. I bought a couple more that I got for, like, $20 or $30, because people really didn’t have an interest in it. I thought, OK, what can I do with the two technologies?

So now I have a couple of tube amplifiers, the newest one being a 1938 stereo amplifier. I have built a docking station, rewired the amplifier so that my daughter now can hook it up to her iPhone 4. It’s an amp with tubes. The warmth of the tubes… it’s just so different from the docking stations you buy. It’s so cool. You have the five tubes coming out, the glow of the tubes. My teenage daughter actually likes it. She thought, “You have 1920s, 1930s technology combined with the newest iPhone. And guess what? They all talk to each other.”

Mike makes connections: between devices, between countries, and between people. Isn’t that the point of repair?