S.C.-Created Device Enables Doubling the Number of COVID-19 Patients Helped by Ventilators

Apr 2, 2020

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, much has been made of the expected shortage of ventilators for COVID-19 patients.  To maximize the patient treatment potential of ventilators in America's hospitals, a team of South Carolina doctors, engineers and other health care professionals has developed a way to double (at least) the capacity of the nation's ventilators while more are being made.

The Vesper ventilation expansion splitter is a Y-shaped tube that allows twice the number of hoses to be attached to the ventilator, thus allowing two patients to use the same ventilator.  According to Dr. Peter Tilkemeier, chair of medicine for Prisma Health Upstate, the idea came from emergency medicine Dr. Sarah Farris, who partnered with her husband, a mechanical engineer software developer.  He brought in engineer friends to design the part, which can be made on a 3-D printer. 

The device, called the Vesper ventilation expansion splitter, can  be made available to hospitals two ways, said Tilkemeier.  "For sites that demonstrate that they have the required equipment and medical polymers to print them, we will be able to provide source code" to enable them to make the Vesper on their own 3-D printers.  For those without printers, "we have a couple of large producers that we are talking to to provide devices that can be shipped to smaller institutions or parts of the country - or the world." 

Those producers include the HP corporation and its vendor partners, for whom 3-D printing is a major part of their business.  Once the field tests are complete and certified successful, these vendors can produce thousands of the devices a day for shipment to hospitals.  This is possible through a fast-track approval of the device from the Food and Drug Administration.

That's good news, but even better is that there is no cost for the Vespers, thanks to a donation from a Greenville area Foundation, says Dr. Marjorie Jenkins, dean of the USC School of Medicine Greenville.   She said already in the last few days, calls have come in from across the country, and the world:  "We've heard from Africa, we've heard from Italy, Sweden, Brazil.  So we're getting requests from a lot of places saying either 'we need them, or we want them to be prepared, because we know the surge is coming.'"

Jenkins has been heartened by the outpouring of people wanting to help, including those with personal 3-D printers volunteering to make Vespers.  "I think one thing this crisis has done is it's shown us the best of humanity, in wanting to be helpful and help save lives.  At the same time," she cautioned in saying that the team will stick with the professional producers, "we want there to be a quality structure around this.  We do have FDA emergency use authorization that carries with it specifications.  And we need to make sure those are adhered to." 

Tilkemeier and Jenkins said the Vesper could be used to stretch a ventilator's capacity to serve four patients, but the conditions would have to be just right, and it would have to be an emergency.  They are most comfortable recommending the device for just two patients if at all possible.  They stressed the continued need for people to help prevent the spread of the virus through the well-publicized and oft-repeated methods: stay home, observe social distancing when  you need to go out, and wash those hands.