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Dust Off That Old Breast Pump - It Might Help In The Fight Against COVID-19

Elizabeth Miner

Hospitals across the country are in short supply of essential medical equipment critical in the fight against COVID-19. Top on that list is ventilators. 

A typical ventilator costs anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000. 

Now a team of engineers in Southern Maryland have figured out a way to convert an item often found in the back of a mother’s closet into a ventilator: a good old reliable breast pump.  

The four engineers - husband and wife Brandi and Grant Gerstner, Alex Scott and Rachel LaBatt - work at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station, but they're working independently on this project to convert the technology of a breast pump, which sucks air, to that of a ventilator, which blows air.

"Engineers, they think very similar to artists," says Tommy Luginbill, who works at TechPort at the University of Maryland. Luginbill and the engineers quickly saw the promise in their idea - one of several to help the pandemic. And they created the non-profit, Southern Maryland Loves You.   

"They see the world in a different way. When they look at things, they think about how items work as a system." 

And that’s exactly what happened when Brandi Gerstner was watching the news one night. Like many, she was taking  in the news about the shortage of ventilators. Luginbill says "it dawned on her: what if we could take a breast pump and just reverse the air flow?" 

After a bit of tinkering, the engineers thought their idea had a chance of actually helping the thousands of hospitals that are desperate for ventilators. 

Luginbill got in touch with the medical center in Charles County - which provided them with a ventilationn test kit. And soon, the Food and Drug Administration reached out. Luginbill says they’re in the process of receiving a fast-track approval. 

And collecting breast pumps. 

When Baltimore mom, Elizabeth Miner, saw the social media post about the project, she sprang into action. 

"Like so many women,  I have two breast pumps hanging around my house that I no longer need," Miner says.

Her two children are three and almost two. She no longer nurses, but hung on to her breast pumps anyway. "It always feels wrong to throw them in the trash, but donating them is difficult and recycling them is difficult." 

Miner started posting on parenting boards and other list-servs around the city and pretty soon, her trunk was full of breast pumps. Ready to be converted. 

Lugenbill says the project has been moving at lightning speed – and hopes to get final approval in the coming days.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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