Engineer built a prototype for a ventilator using her old breast pump

The surge of patients infected with the coronavirus has caused medical supply shortages all over the U.S. These shortages in personal protection equipment (PPE) include face masks, gloves and hospital gowns. And while companies and individuals have been donating and making products to supplement hospitals’ needs, there is still a major deficit of ventilators.

These ventilators are essential, as they help healthcare workers treat critically ill COVID-19 patients. But they often cost anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000, and many hospitals don’t have enough money to purchase the amount they need to handle the spikes in new patients.

But what if there were a lower-cost option available to medical professionals? That’s what a group of Maryland engineers is working on as they attempt to design a ventilator using a breast pump.

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Brandi Gerstner, her husband, Grant, and two other engineers, Alex Scott and Rachel LaBatt, speculated about how many people might have breast pumps around the house they weren’t using. They asked themselves — could those portable machines be re-tooled into ventilators?

“You know they’re reliable, they’ve been used by moms everywhere for decades. What if I could reverse it?” Gerstner told The Bay Net in an interview. “What if I could make it blow rather than suck? And so I grabbed my old one from the basement, grabbed a screwdriver and an X-Acto knife… Sure enough, you can turn it around very, very easily.”

But reversing the suction was only the first step in transforming these pumps into potential ventilators. The team also needed to synchronize the timing of the air-flow with the medically-recommended inhale-exhale ratio.

“We soldered a few pins onto the control board of the breast pump Arduino (a type of microcontroller) to turn it on and off,” team member Alex Scott told WBAL-TV.

The team is currently on its third prototype.

“Safety is our first and primary focus, so please stay tuned for updates to safety data, and please let us know if you are an engineer or doctor who has time to help review our design documentation,” Gerstner wrote on the team’s YouTube page. “Everything is open source. We are non-profit engineers looking to make a difference.”

If you’d like to follow along, the engineering team has created a page on Facebook, BreastPumpVent, to document their progress. They’re also using the page to solicit donations of breast pumps and/or money and to find people willing to do durability tests on the pumps.