The coronavirus pandemic has left large numbers of people gasping for air. Many patients with COVID-19 wind up needing extra oxygen. Sometimes they even need to be put on machines that breathe for them. But shortages of these ventilators have developed as the number of patients has grown. That has inspired researchers to explore new low-cost ideas to help these patients breathe more easily.
Their work might help both big-city hospitals and medical centers in remote parts of the world. And what they are engineering could help patients long after the pandemic ends.
Shannon Yee is a mechanical engineer. He works at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. After hearing of shortages, he recalls, his team asked: “How can we design a low-cost ventilator that can be made globally?” His team and colleagues in England looked at how these machines are used. And they thought about which of their parts might be available nearly anywhere in the world.
“You have to start from the perspective of the person who needs it,” says Kyle Azevedo. He works at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. The team’s goal, he says, has been to figure out “what is essential” to meet someone’s needs. In some cases, a device might not need all the fancy controls that are standard on U.S. ventilators.
Most ambulance crews use hand-operated bags when patients can’t breathe. They’re called ambu bags. A machine could be added to squeeze them, Yee’s team reasoned. And unlike a person, it could work nonstop for days.
The simple motor and mechanical system that Yee’s team designed inflates and squeezes the bags. A plug-in power adapter or standard 12-volt battery runs it. Add separate tubing and volume controls and this device can breathe for two patients at once. Filters in the tubing keep each patient’s exhaled air from infecting others. And the system can hook up to an oxygen supply. Kits can be packaged flat for shipping, Yee says.
“The ambu bag pump system would be great,” says Anne Safrath. She’s a nurse in Merrick, N.Y., who has worked in emergency rooms. This project, she says, “saves a pair of hands that could be doing something else.”