3D Printers to the Rescue: Keeping PAPRs in Use

Two 3D printers regularly get fired up in the basement of John Cote, MD. The CHI Health Obstetrician/Gynecologist has a knack for research and creating.

“I have experience with acquiring imaging technology and converting that to a 3D print,” Dr. Cote said.

That experience came in handy when brainstorming ways to preserve personal protective equipment (PPE) for CHI Health frontline workers caring for COVID-19 patients. Dr. Cote helped come up with a way to source a small connector device vital to keeping Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPR) in use.

Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, PAPRs have been one of the most essential pieces of PPE. They pass contaminated air through a filter and bring clean air through a face piece. A vacuum hose runs from the hood to a battery pack. On each end of that hose, plastic connector pieces keep the hose fastened in place.

“When staff was using the PAPRs so much, the hoses would break and the plastic connectors wouldn’t last as long,” said Dr. Cote. “Ultimately, they could find a hose that would go from the hood to the positive pressure generator, but they needed a connector that would work with that.”

The connectors were nearly impossible to purchase and if they were available, they’d be on backorder for months. Staff needed them now. So, Dr. Cote took the connectors and CT scanned them, turning the scan into a file the 3D printer could recognize. This allowed him to create a prototype of the PAPR connectors.

“I took the prototypes Dr. Cote printed to Creighton University Medical Center-Bergan Mercy, where staff would then actually apply the connectors in the field and figure out what tweaks we wanted to make,” said Greg Schardt, System Director - pharmacy mail order. Next, Schardt took the prototypes to a community 3D printing group, PPE for NE. The group has an abundance of 3D printers and a greater ability to refine the original prototype Dr. Cote made. The project also included collaboration with Creighton University.

“3D printing is layers, layers and layers of very thin plastic material,” Schardt said. “The community group took the rougher picture and made smoother edging, made it look like it was almost commercially made.”

Fine-tuning is still underway, which Schardt said is the beauty of the 3D printing process – changes can always be made to make the product better. Jeff Thompson, an engineer on the CHI Health facilities team, took the 3D printed connectors, attached them to PAPRs in the field and worked with frontline staff to find out what’s great about the product and what could be better. Dozens of the connectors were also sent to CHI Health St. Francis and CHI Health Good Samaritan.

“We’re still editing the connectors today,” Schardt said. “We found that the ends are slipping off out in the field. The team suggested adding threading to improve the product and make it more durable.”

Dr. Cote is submitting a preapplication to patent the process used to make the PAPR connectors – the brain child of CHI Health and Creighton University staff collaborating to overcome COVID-19’s curveballs.

“We like to chase ideas, and we have a lot of creativity,” Schardt said. “We’re willing to try, fail and try again. It’s a common theme with a lot of us. We’re interested in creating solutions to our problems.” 

John J. Cote, MD, FACOG

Obstetrics and Gynecology