The next time it feels like the world will never get better and there’s nothing anyone can do to make it better, remember this.
A small group of students from the University of Minnesota just invented a new Class 1 medical device and got it into production in time to save the university medical center and a children’s hospital from running out of personal protective equipment.
It took them two weeks.
The University of Minnesota Medical Center and the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital were running through thousands and thousands of protective gowns each day. They tried to buy more, but the supply chain from China was broken and every other hospital was competing for the gowns that were left.
The solution was waiting in the last place they looked. The Department of Biomedical Engineering and 18 student volunteers from Prof. Steven Saliterman’s biomedical engineering classes.
The M Health Fairview hospital system needed gowns that were affordable, disposable, one-size-fits-all, and safer than the garbage bags doctors and nurses have been forced to wear elsewhere.
Every manufacturer, medical supplier and PPE broker they approached told them no, or didn’t return the call, or put them on a waiting list.
On April 17, the hospital reached out to Saliterman, who reached out to his students, who hopped on a Zoom call.
“If you can help at times like these, take the initiative,” said Malcolm Pithawalla, who led the team of students that searched for an affordable source of raw material for the gowns. “People are in it together, and everybody wants to help each other out. What better way than to collaborate and solve a problem one step at a time?”
The students broke the big problem into small parts. During the first group call, Anna Karos started sketching and cutting out gown prototypes on Post-it notes. She led the design team.
“We prototyped with trash bags, with tablecloths, we picked up whatever plastic sheeting we could find at the stores,” she said.
With each new design, they consulted with doctors and nurses, who offered suggestions or pointed out flaws but ended each meeting on the same note: “Whatever you have, it’s OK. It’s OK. We just need something.”
Instead of a trash bag with armholes, the students designed a gown with sleeves, wraparound ties at the waist and thumb holes, so the sleeves tuck neatly into gloves.
The students gave up nights, weekends, free time and class time to work on the project. Nels Shafer divided his time between design work and his terminally ill grandmother, who was fascinated by the project.
“She told me how happy and proud she was of this effort,” said Shafer, who lost his grandmother to cancer shortly after the first gowns went into production. “I’m always going to remember that. My effort is dedicated to my grandmother.”
Fixing America’s broken PPE supply chain wasn’t a lesson students could learn from a textbook.
“Something like this, it’s almost like a crash course,” said Logan Remington. “I find it so much more useful than anything else that I’ve learned in college.”
Saliterman teaches classes on medical device prototyping, but his students have their entire senior year to come up with a medical device. Now deadlines were tighter and the stakes here were much higher.
“We’ll take it,” Saliterman told Dr. Kevin Wang, the anesthesiologist who first reached out to him. “Give it to my students and we’ll solve it.”
While the design team worked on the gowns, the materials team, led by Sam Newell and John Liu, figured out what they should be made from and how. After dozens of calls and few takers, they found Polar Plastics in Oakdale.
Not only did the company take the job, some of its clients offered to delay standing orders to give the hospital gowns priority. By the end of the next week, high-quality antistatic polyethylene film was rolling off the assembly line, ready to be fabricated into gowns.
Ten thousand gowns a day for the next six to eight weeks.
Waiting to fabricate those gowns was Red Fox Innovations in Arden Hills, which took the job even though barely half its workforce has returned to work.
“They told us, ‘We need 350,000 gowns. Can you help?’” said Red Fox President Jon Boor Boor, who gets a lot of calls like that these days. This time, he said, his company could help.
One team of students sought regulations and guidance from the Food and Drug Administration to make sure the federal government had no objection to the gown project.
Another team kept track of records, including the 700 e-mails exchanged during those two weeks.
Production of the new “Gowns for U” began in earnest on May 1. Thanks poured in from the hospitals, from pediatric nurses who got to test the first prototypes, from administrators who will sleep a little easier at night.
For team members like Peter Linden, the gown project brought a sense of purpose and comfort after weeks of dislocation and isolation. On campus, just seeing other students studying at the library or working in the labs made him feel “like you’re part of a collective effort,” he said.
“Being pulled out of that leaves a gap. This has helped fill it,” Linden said. “Just to feel like you’re on a team with people, trying to solve a legitimate problem in your community. It’s been neat.”