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Sunday, June 14, 2020

How that URI ventilator project worked out

Their semester altered, URI students, faculty reconfigure sleep apnea machines for fight against COVID-19
Sixty URI volunteers work at just-in-time manufacturing center in Memorial Union
Isabella Silverman, left, of Cumberland, a University of Rhode Island ocean engineering major who graduated in May, and Aaron Hertzer of Lincoln, a mechanical engineering student in URI’s International Engineering Program, unpack sleep apnea machines at the University's Memorial Union in April. The two were among about 60 volunteers. URI photo by Nora Lewis.

Some University of Rhode Island students experienced an abrupt end to their International Engineering experience in Germany, but when they returned home, they didn’t sulk and sit still. URI faculty members squeezed in time between giving exams and grading papers to offer their expertise. And administrators and staff pitched in in countless ways to be of service to health care professionals and those hit hard by COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

Their mission–assist those from VentilatorProject.org, the Rhode Island Commerce Corp. the Rhode Island Department of Health, 30 fire stations, hospitals and industry to collect and refurbish sleep apnea machines to serve as supplementary breathing machines for hospitals treating patients with COVID-19.

The project, which started April 13, and ran for three weeks, operated out of the University of Rhode Island’s Memorial Union. 

Throughout the project, hundreds of CPAP and BiPAP machines donated from around the state and other parts of the country, arrived at the Union’s loading dock, where volunteers sprung into action to unpack and clean the machines before they were sterilized and brought to the Memorial Union Ballroom for reconfiguration and packaging for distribution to Rhode Island hospitals and other countries. 

[We first covered this project HERE.]


Recently, the Rhode Island National Guard transported units to the Bahamas and Timor Leste, and URI and the Ventilator Project are sending machines to Nigeria, Ghana, Indonesia and the Philippines.

“The URI faculty and student volunteers who came out were amazing,” said Air Force Col. Erik Brine, executive director of the National Institute for Undersea Vehicle Technology. 

“Not only was their labor critical  to the success of the project, but the technical acumen and experience they brought allowed us to do things like set up and run a temporary ozone sanitation function in the Memorial Student Union.”

Brine, of Jamestown, was pleased with the exceptional efforts of URI community members, but he singled out Laura K. Glastra, a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Oceanography, who hails from Seattle, Washington and now lives in Narragansett.

“Laura, who studies microplastics at URI completed all of the necessary research to assure the safest, most efficient and effective means to conduct equipment sanitation,” Brine said.

Another student volunteer was Isabella Silverman, a Cumberland resident, who earned her bachelor’s degree in ocean engineering May 17. She joined other volunteers on the loading dock during a few raw spring days and then helped out in the manufacturing area, all while wearing a face covering and maintaining social distance.

“It was cool to be part of the entire experience, from unloading trucks to working on the machines and to know they could be going all over the world,” Silverman said. “I volunteered because it was a great way to wrap up my time here.”

While preparing for and taking her finals, she put in 15 to 18 hours a week. “I helped with all tasks, but mainly worked on the re-programming of the CPAPS and BiPAPS,” Silverman said. “We turned on the machines, connecting them to a manometer to adjust their clinical settings and make sure they worked properly.”

“This ended up being so rewarding, and I reconnected with some fellow students I hadn’t seen in a while,” Silverman said.

Jeffrey Kimmerlein of South Kingstown and Aaron Hertzer of Lincoln were both in Germany in mid-March for what they hoped was completion of their internships as part of the one-year abroad portion of URI’s International Engineering Program. 

But then COVID-19 cases spiked in Europe and they were called home. They quarantined for two weeks, and then they received an email about the Ventilator Project from Sigrid Berka, director of the German IEP. They worked at the project from April 17 to May 6.

Like Silverman, Hertzer and Kimmerlein worked in every stage of the process, but focused mainly on in-depth testing of the machines.

“I am extremely happy that I was able to be part of this project,” said Hertzer, who is president of the URI Sailing Club. “It was a great way to use my enjoyment of taking stuff apart and fixing things to be used for people in need. Just being able to serve in a time of crisis was a huge honor on its own, and I was more than happy to lend a hand.”

Kimmerlein said he and Hertzer are classmates, fourth-year students in the five-year IEP and glad to learn that there was a way to help people when they returned home.

“Both of us are mechanical engineering students, so we were happy to test and repair the machines so that more could be used to help people,” said Kimmerlein, a member of the URI Pep Band and That Ram Band. “It’s nice to hear that we were part of a project that would help people around the world. It was a real pleasure working on this project.”

Christine Gardiner, who now calls Newport home, earned both her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in chemical oceanography from URI. She helped with inventory and unloaded trucks.

“This was such a great effort,” she said while working in the Memorial Union Ballroom, where packages were labeled, stacked and made ready for distribution. “We were all asked to stay home by the governor, but I needed to get my hands dirty and stay involved.”

Laura Holland, a Ph.D. student in biological environmental science, said it has been hard to be a scientist during the pandemic.

“Research was viewed initially as non-essential, and I was feeling a little helpless,” said the Exeter resident.  “I love going to my lab, working in my office. Being part of this has made me feel more productive.”

Elizabeth Mendenhall, an assistant professor of marine affairs and political science, helped with several aspects of the process, including cleaning the machines.

“I live alone, I am not high risk and so I volunteered,” the Newport resident said. “Because I am detail oriented, I volunteered to clean the machines. I used cotton swabs to clean the hard-to-get-to parts of the machines. I am really impressed with students and faculty who took time out of their schedules at the end of the semester to do this.

“It really makes you think about how wonderful this community is,” Mendenhall said.