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Creighton software developer creates low-cost ventilator

Max McCoyMax McCoy wasn’t sleeping at night, and that deprivation was making him grouchy.

“I need my sleep,” he says, “and I can’t sleep if I feel like I’m doing nothing to help solve this COVID-19 problem.”

Now, that’s some admirable civic virtue, and when McCoy noticed that McGill University in Montreal was offering a $200,000 prize for the invention of a low-cost and effective ventilator, his inner Thomas Edison took center stage.

“I'm not after the prize money,” McCoy says. “This is strictly because I can't sleep at night, and I'm difficult to deal with if I don't get sleep, which makes it hard for me to deal with other people.”

McCoy is a senior software developer with Creighton’s Division of Information Technology (DoIT) whose expertise in computer programming and code writing he placed in the service of developing a cheap but efficient ventilator made from commonly available components. What he produced, following all specifications outlined by McGill University, is a ventilator costing a few hundred dollars that he believes has the potential to function as well as its high-end $30,000 competitors.

“Most ventilators are based on the bag-type emergency resuscitator that you see emergency personnel using when somebody can't breathe for themselves,” he says. “The issue with these bag-type resuscitators is that they force air into the person and cause what’s called the ‘mandatory breath,’ which means patients are being forced to breathe whether they want to, or need to.”

Such unnecessary pressure can damage fragile alveoli air sacs and result in fluid retention.

“That’s one of the things that my ventilator is meant to solve,” he says, “monitoring the air pressure that is being forced into the lungs, which is something high-end ventilators do.”

The second requirement of the McGill contest is a Positive End-Expirator Pressure (PEEP) function, which maintains airway pressure above atmospheric pressure so that the alveoli sacs remain functional even when the patient exhales. This, too, McCoy said, is a function usually restricted to high-end respirators, but which he believes his ventilator achieves.

The third McGill requirement demands that parts be easily accessible and plentiful, and here McCoy is especially pleased with his invention.

“There are really only three required components to make this work,” he says. “Those are a simple motor controller, a microcontroller and a barometric pressure sensor, all of which cost under $50.”

After that, he says, his ventilator requires only a blower, and just about any blower will work. His prototype, for example, uses a 12-volt air-mattress blower, and although he acknowledges that such a device would never pass FDA muster, he says many inexpensive blowers would.

If his ventilator proves practical, McCoy says, he plans to make the blueprint open source.

“I want the design to be open and free for people to use,” he says. “If this is a good solution, and it can get the approvals that it needs, I want it to be available for anybody to use. If I kept it to myself, that would defeat the purpose.

“If nothing comes of it, well then at least I did no harm.”

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