PROVO — A team of students at Brigham Young University decided to give babies without neonatal facilities a proper chance at survival by creating a portable ventilator.
Spencer Ferguson recently graduated from BYU after studying mechanical engineering. He said the project began in 2012 after two doctors from Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo were inspired after traveling to the Philippines.
Dr. Erick Gerday and Dr. Ken Richardson practice as neonatalogists and occasionally take trips to third-world countries to teach neonatal resuscitation programs, Ferguson said. In many countries around the world, the neonatal facilities do not have the medical technology available in the U.S. and as a result, doctors often have to use rudimentary equipment to help babies with undeveloped lungs.
"It's called bagging or hand bagging," Ferguson said. "Basically, there is a mask that goes over the head of the babies when the babies are having trouble and can't breathe on their own. The mask goes over the baby's mouth and is connected to a little tube that has a hand pump. And you just squeeze (the pump) every time you want to give the baby a breath."
However, having to hand pump a ventilator and mechanically breath for a baby is an exhaustive process that can be difficult to maintain. Ferguson said some of the families that have used the "hand bagging" equipment have had to hand pump for as long as 30 days to keep their baby alive.
"These families would squeeze (the pump) once every two seconds," he said. "And they would have to do this 24/7 — every two seconds for every minute, every hour, every day, switching between brothers and sisters (taking turns pumping.) And if they stop, the baby will either have brain damage from lack of oxygen or just simply die."
Gerday and Richardson met with a nurse while they were in the Philippines who alerted them to the need for a ventilator. When the men returned to the U.S., they brought the idea to the BYU engineering department and Ferguson and a team of 12 students launched their capstone project.
"With the doctors' guidance, we said, 'What are the bare minimum things we need to sustain the patient's life and let's figure out a way to do that.' "
Ferguson said their biggest goal was to create a portable ventilator that would breathe for the baby using an intubation tube and that would be cost efficient. Most ventilators currently cost around $40,000 for one unit, and Ferguson said the BYU team created a portable one that would cost $500 to $700.
"With the doctors' guidance, we said, 'What are the bare minimum things we need to sustain the patient's life and let's figure out a way to do that,' " Ferguson said. "We didn't want to make it super complex because (that) makes training more difficult."
With the financial sponsorship of local philanthropist John Krupa, a prototype of the portable ventilator was created. Ferguson said the next step is to have the ventilator tested on animals before it can be shipped to third-world countries. He said the University of Utah has a neonatal laboratory, but his group would need to raise $25,000 for the testing.
Ferguson said an account has been set up to gather donations to fund the testing of the portable ventilator. If the ventilator is medically approved, the machines would be distributed without cost as part of a humanitarian project.
"(We are) trying to bring technology to people who don't have it," Ferguson said.
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