Coronavirus: Maryland engineers convert old breast pumps into ventilators

A group of engineers in southern Maryland said used breast pumps can be converted into ventilators, helping alleviate a crucial shortage during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This has been really exciting for me,” engineer Rachel Labatt told WRC-TV.

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Labatt has been working with Brand Gerstner, Grant Gerstner, Alex Scott and Tommy Luginbill to develop the product, the television station reported.

Currently, the team has been converting donated pumps. The process is quick and costs $250 per unit., WBAL reported. According to WRC, an air ventilator can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000; the television station placed the cost of the group’s prototypes at $500.

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Regardless of the cost, obtaining old breast pumps should be relatively simple.

“Just as a mom, I spent a lot of time with those devices,” Brandi Gerstner told the television station.

Brandi Gerstner said she wondered if it was possible to reverse the suction power of a breast pump, where it would expel air, WBAL reported. She said she used an X-Acto knife and a Phillips head screwdriver to make the transition.

“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," Brandi Gerstner said. “That was the starting point.”

“That is just by switching two tubes on the inside … we reversed the actions of the pump to now be a positive pressure system,” Labatt told WRC.

The team calls the conversion an “intermittent positive pressure ventilation” device. which safely does the same job as a ventilator, the television station reported.

There were a few more minor modifications, but the team believes they have created an instrument that meets 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,” Scott told WBAL.

When the prototype is ready, the engineer hope to get quick approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the television station reported. Once approved, the team will be ready to send the makeshift ventilators to hospitals in need of the devices.

“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,” Labatt told WBAL.

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