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Dr. Charles Robertson, assistant professor of anesthesiology, has built ventilators to use at the Medical Center in case of a shortage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

UMMC professor invents $50 ventilator

By BECKY GILLETTE

In the wake of worldwide shortages of ventilators needed to save lives during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, a Mississippi medical school professor has invented a functional ventilator that can be built from commonly available supplies like a garden hose and lamp timer for about $50.

The idea of Dr. Charles Robertson, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), was to build the absolute simplest, cheapest, functioning ventilator possible from easily-available parts.

After watching the coronavirus spread from China to South Korea, Italy and Iran, Robertson said he knew that if it came to the U.S., there might not be enough ventilators for the surge in patients. 

According to a UMMC press release, the Robertson Ventilators are made from garden hose sections, adapters, valves, a solenoid and a lamp timer, all of which can be bought at a hardware store or online. The parts cost about $50 and can be assembled in less than an hour. The ventilator works when plugged into the standard oxygen line in a hospital room which allows it to be used in more locations than a standard ventilator.

Robertson said commercially available ventilators are fancier and more efficient, but the basic concept of a ventilator is not sophisticated. Ventilators work by pushing air into the lungs, then stopping for an exhale, then repeating as needed. His design controls air flow using an on-off valve similar to what you’d find in a landscape water feature or lawn sprinkler controlled by the timer and the solenoid.

Alan E. Jones, a professor and chair of the UMMC Department of Emergency Medicine, said Mississippi doesn’t want to get into a situation like New York and New Orleans where they are running out of medical equipment because of the surge of patients.

“This is our plan for not running out,” Jones said.

Working with a team of registered nurse anesthetists, about 170 of the life-saving ventilators have been built to augment the Medical Center’s existing supply of 150 hospital ventilators. Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Dr. Richard Summers said the ventilators have passed rigorous testing in their research laboratories under broad physiologic conditions and lung pathologies.

Summers said they have applied for an Emergency Use Authorization with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has indicated interest in these ventilators.

“I think this effort represents the independent ‘can do’ attitude and ingenuity of our physicians and scientists to confront this crisis in the service of the people of Mississippi,” Summers said.

The ventilators would be used as a last resort only if necessary.

Robertson said not only could the inexpensive ventilators save lives in Mississippi, but could serve as a template for other hospitals around the nation and the world to build emergency ventilators as needed.

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About Becky Gillette