Shifting focus: CWRU MedWish helps fulfill need for personal protective equipment during pandemic

3D printers at think[box]

Addressing health care challenges is at the core of CWRU MedWish’s mission. But the work the undergraduate organization does repurposing medical devices typically supports underserved regions around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic changed that, bringing a pressing medical concern closer to home—and prompting CWRU MedWish to step up. The group shifted its focus from working with the not-for-profit organization MedWish International to producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for local hospitals.

According to Julian Narvaez, student president of CWRU MedWish: “The pandemic offered an opportunity to use CWRU’s geographically diverse student body to help with a nationwide shortage of PPE.”

After selecting a face shield design approved by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to ensure safety and effectiveness, the group put out a call on social media in April to enlist volunteers.

Since then, approved volunteers have helped to 3D print the design, using their personal 3D printers or machines at local high schools, maker spaces, and even the Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box].

CWRU MedWish ships the materials needed to make the shields—including a spool of 3D printing filament, a roll of clear plastic and elastic banding—to the volunteers, providing each with enough to make up to 18 pieces of PPE. The group covers the full cost of the supplies through its own funding from organizations like the Case Alumni Association and NIH, estimating that each shield costs about $1.25 to manufacture.

To construct the shields, volunteers “print” two headbands at a time in a process that takes about seven and a half hours, then manipulate the plastic film and attach elastic bands. Completed shields are donated to local hospital systems for use by medical staff.

Narvaez reports nearly 30 people across seven states have reached out to help, and eight of those people have received their first shipment of supplies. 

Though the pandemic pulled MedWish participants away from their original plans for the semester, producing face shields allows them to draw upon their training in biomedical engineering to help keep frontline workers safe.

“I’m very impressed with the ingenuity and resilience of these students,” said Andrew Rollins, a professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and a CWRU MedWish advisor. “They had to leave campus and their peers and complete their semester remotely due to the pandemic, yet … they found a way to make a meaningful contribution that is responsive to this unique time.”

Colin Drummond, professor and assistant chair in the Department of Biomedical Engineering and a CWRU MedWish Faculty advisor, echoed Rollins’ sentiments.

“[The group] was able to determine clinical need and develop and implement a plan of action,” he said, noting how NIH educational grant funding has allowed CWRU MedWish participants to immerse themselves in the world of medical device design. “The motivation and self-directed activities illustrate how the students can come together as a team and make an impact.”