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The Plain View

Last week, when Eric Humphreys heard about the impending need for ventilators to treat the huge influx of Covid-19 patients, he sprang to action. Humphreys used to be an EMT, and he remembered the bag valve mask resuscitators used in ambulances–called by the trademarked name of the leading provider, “Ambu bag”–and thought maybe he could create something like it. He didn’t have much else to do during the shutdown.

Humpreys is a lifelong maker, working as the director of creative design technology at a production company called Standard Transmission. The company is best known for concocting the intricate Christmas window displays at Macy’s. Working in the now depopulated 20,000-square-foot headquarters in Red Hook, Brooklyn, he began building a DIY breathing machine. “I literally used Christmas parts,” he says.

The point of a ventilator is to pump air into the lungs of patients who can’t breathe for themselves. The Ambu bag requires an EMT to manually press down on the plastic bladder, forcing the air into the patient. Humpreys rigged a machine to do the pumping. It took him only a couple of days to produce something that mimicked the action of an EMT on an Ambu bag.

But he and his boss, Manu Sawkar, the founder of Standard Transmission, also realized that this “DIY MacGyver creation,” as Sawkar puts it, wasn’t even vaguely ready for prime time. Real ventilators require considerable testing for reliability. They have to monitor patients and set off alarms if too much or too little air is going to the lungs. They have sophisticated algorithms to regulate flow depending on how well the patient is inhaling. Even if Standard Transmission did create something usable, Sawkar says, it would never be able to manufacture enough units to interest the city. So Humphreys’s creation will go no farther than a well-meaning gesture.

Courtesy of Eric Humphreys/Standard Transmission

Humphreys hasn’t given up on the idea of an open-source ventilator, though, and hopes to put his learnings to use in other projects that are farther along. There are dozens of groups working on the idea, including a group of MIT students in Long Island City. The “E-Vent” project, a much more sophisticated operation than Humphreys’, is working with actual clinicians. But it still faces huge challenges, like getting FDA approval, even in an environment where normal regulations are relaxed because of the current crisis. There is so much interest in this approach that members of the E-Vent team have chosen not to share their names so that they are not distracted by a stream of queries. Sawkar believes that these streamlined designs are eventually going to find their way into use, probably in areas that have traditionally been unable to get high-end medical equipment. “The world is going to be different,” he says. “I don’t think many $30,000 ventilators will make it to Africa.”