A Maine professor has created a device to allow multiple patients to be treated by one ventilator, in reaction to the anticipated shortage of breathing machines as the coronavirus pandemic grows.

Dan Abbott, who teaches architectural and engineering design at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland, used a 3-D printer to create a starfish-shaped connector that allows up to four patients to use the same ventilator. He posted a demonstration video on YouTube Wednesday, along with a message explaining that he created the device, called a ventilator manifold or splitter, “as an emergency response to the lack of ventilators needed to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Medical experts nationwide have said that, as the new coronavirus spreads, there will likely not be enough ventilators to go around. Hospitals in the United States have roughly 160,000 to 200,000 ventilators, the New York Times reported, while the Society of Critical Care Medicine has estimated that more than 950,000 coronavirus patients in the U.S. could require ventilators. Ventilators, also known as respirators or breathing machines, give life support treatment to people unable to breathe on their own due to respiratory illness.

SMCC Professor Dan Abbott’s design for a device to allow multiple patients to use a single ventilator, taken from a YouTube video in which Abbott, bottom right, explains how it works. Screenshot from YouTube video

Abbott is sharing his idea online in the hope that others with 3-D printers that are capable will make them for possible use. His online post Wednesday included links to instructions on how to make the device. He cautioned that the splitter had undergone only preliminary testing for air leakage and that at this point it should be “used solely in a dire life-threatening emergency as a last resort device.”

The device was tested for more than 36 hours by a respiratory therapist at Maine Medical Center in Portland without any problems, Abbott wrote in his message. Maine Medical Center spokesperson Caroline Cornish said Thursday that hospital officials felt they were “not in a position” to comment on Abbott’s device yet because it is so new.

“MMC has about 80 ventilators on hand and we are constantly assessing how this resource can be utilized to best support current or future patient needs,” Cornish wrote in an email to the Press Herald.

When asked to talk about his device Thursday, Abbott declined, citing his current workload. He referred questions to Clarke Canfield, director of communications at SMCC. Canfield said that now that Abbott has created his device, it’s up to healthcare experts to determine if it is of value to them. He said that by Thursday Abbott had found two other people in Maine with the right kind of printers who are interested in making the devices. The printer costs about $3,500, and the materials for each splitter are estimated by Abbott to cost about $8, Canfield said.

Abbott began working on the device less than a week ago at the urging of Heather Higgins, chair of the respiratory therapy department at SMCC, according to a Facebook post by Abbott’s wife, novelist Monica Wood.

“SMCC is doing what it can to support healthcare providers during these challenging times,” said Canfield.

Besides testing the device extensively this week, Abbott said online he’s been trying to print as many devices as possible. He said in the video he can print five at a time, and the process takes about 14 hours.

Abbott’s splitter is shaped like a starfish with five ports, and looks like something that could connect multiple garden hoses. In the video he posted, Abbott explained he made the splitter using a resin-based 3-D printer made by Formlabs, based in Somerville, Massachusetts. He said other models he made using different methods leaked air. No one from Formlabs returned emails asking for information about their printers and their uses.

Devices that allow more than one patient to use the same ventilator have been experimented with before, but it’s unclear if any are in widespread use. The academic publisher Scientific Research reported in 2014 that Richard Siderits of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University had worked on the design of a 3-D-printed manifold that allowed multiple respiration masks to attach to a single ventilator, but a message left for Siderits at the school Thursday was not returned.

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