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Group of engineers turn old breast pumps into ventilators, amid shortage

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One group of engineers in southern Maryland is hoping to help decrease the ventilator shortage with breast pumps.

Posted: Apr 9, 2020 6:57 AM
Updated: Apr 9, 2020 7:01 AM


ST. MARY'S COUNTY, MD (WBAL) -- Necessity is the mother of invention, and the coronavirus pandemic has created the need for a lot of medical supplies quickly.

One group of engineers in southern Maryland is hoping to help decrease the ventilator shortage with breast pumps.

A lot of moms have them just lying around in a closet, but a group of engineers are taking old breast pumps and retrofitting them into ventilators to hopefully help in the fight against the coronavirus.

“Just as a mom, I spent a lot of time with those devices,” engineer Brandi Gerstner said.

With that, Gerstner started thinking if it was possible to turn the suction power of a breast pump around to expel air instead. Turns out, with an X-Acto knife and phillips head screwdriver, you can.

“This is the primary compressor unit that's driving the suction and as you can see, it's got an inlet and an outlet and this is the inlet and this is the outlet, so we just moved the tubing from one to the other. That was the starting point,” Gerstner said.

There are more modifications, like synching the timing of the air with the inhale-exhale ratio recommended by doctors.

“We soldered a few pins onto the control board of the breast pump, and just used the arduino to turn it on and off,” electrical engineer Alex Scott said.

They also need to create an emergency sensor to make sure the pressure of the air stays consistent, and take care of a few other technical issues, like creating a printed circuit board.

But the group is already using a ventilator test kit and consulting with pulmonologists to make sure the pumps are up to snuff.

“A lot of it's going to be packaging, after that point and making sure that their units in their final form are going to be sanitizable,” Gerstner said.

Right now, they're using donated pumps. The process is quick and cheap at $250 per unit.

After the kinks are worked out, the engineers are hoping to get fast track approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to get these makeshift ventilators to hospitals.

“If we can have engineers duplicate our efforts across the country so that ventilators can be used in other states quickly and manufactured there quickly, we would love that,” software engineer Rachel Labatt said.

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