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Maryland engineers working to turn breast pumps into ventilators

Engineer Brandi Gerstner looked at her own breast pump and began work to convert it to an emergency ventilator. UMD team showing early success.

CALIFORNIA, Md. — Breast pumps are an essential tool for many mothers, but one Maryland engineer thinks they could also be critical to saving a coronavirus patient’s life.

Brandi Gerstner is the engineer, and mother, who came up with the idea. Gerstner gathered a team of fellow engineers, including Rachel Lebatt, to make her plan a reality. 

"She knew that she could reverse the breast pump, and that’s when she pulled us in for the electrical side of this ventilator," Lebatt said.

Credit: Brandi Gerstner
Brandi Gerstner (in center), engineer, mother, and inventor of the breast pump ventilator prototype.

The team of engineers works at the TechPort Business Incubator in St Mary’s County, Maryland. To turn breast pumps into ventilators, they solder on a commonly available micro-controller and change some code to tell the pump that, instead of drawing air in, it should push it out.

Credit: TechPort
Engineers work to convert a breast pump into a ventilator

"Essentially, [it] just takes over control of the breast pump circuitry and turns it on and off, appropriate to how a ventilator would turn on and off," said engineer Alex Scott.

With the coronavirus pandemic drastically increasing the need for them, ventilators are currently in short supply. Manufacturing companies say it will take weeks to re-design their equipment to switch to ventilator production, and months to build the tens of thousands of machines states are pleading the federal government for. This non-profit group of engineers teamed up with the University of Maryland trying to be part of a solution.

RELATED: States demand ventilators as feds ration limited supply

Credit: TechPort
Engineers working to convert a breast pump into a ventilator

"We do want to stress the fact that nobody standing up here is a medical professional, but we do have access to a ton of brilliant people that are medical professionals and they’re working with us to bring this out to people that need it," said TechPort Director Thomas Luginbill.

Credit: WUSA9
(l-r) Thomas Luginbill, Alex Scott, Rachel Lebatt

The engineers are getting their hands on their first ventilator machine Monday to begin compatibility tests. With UMD’s efforts, the engineers hope to get FDA Emergency Use Authorization. However, that could still take months.

RELATED: Maryland company rushing to bring fast COVID-19 test to US

"We’re all looking for opportunities where we can help in some small way," said lactation consultant Sharon Curry. "If my friends and I can collect breast pumps and drive them over to southern Maryland and they can be made into ventilators, that’s just fantastic."

Credit: Sharon Curry
Donated breast pumps in front of a home in Bethesda, Md.

The mothers groups have already collected so many breast pumps for experimentation that the engineers say they don’t need any more for now.

In a similar effort, UC Berkeley scientists are also attempting to reconfigure CPAP breathing machines to use as emergency ventilators.

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