0404 RVCC Whelen Masks COVID

Ken Czechowicz, director of clinical education for the respiratory therapy program at River Valley Community College, stands alongside a 3D printer at the Claremont institution with one of his initial prototype masks. In an effort to best equip local health care workers with proper personal protection equipment (PPE), the Whelen Engineering Company has agreed to collaborate with Czechowicz on design and starting next week will begin large-scale manufacture of the masks for personnel at Valley Regional Hospital.

CLAREMONT — As the battle against the new coronavirus continues across the globe, local leaders are doing their part to help those on the front lines: health care workers.

Hospitals across the country are experiencing shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), including nearby Valley Regional Hospital and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. In echoing the White House’s call-to-action for anyone who can donate any expendable PPE, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health (D-HH) offered instructions for residents to manufacture masks for the hospital’s use.

“Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health facilities have already made strategic adjustments to best utilize our supplies but as this situation gains momentum we will need to address our depleting stock,” said Joanne M. Conroy, MD, CEO and president of D-HH. “No donation is too small.”

For Ken Czechowicz, requests for assistance from the community provided him with an idea.

As director of clinical education for the respiratory therapy program at River Valley Community College (RVCC), he identified that the institution’s resources could be applied to the ongoing situation outside of the classroom. Of these vast materials, 15 3D printers caught his eye.

As silence in spaces often dedicated to insightful deliberation endured at the institution, Czechowicz began his work to develop a prototype mask for use at local medical facilities to best ensure the health and safety of health care workers.

“I saw what was going on in the nation and having been in various medical businesses for close to 40 years I saw the opportunity to use the 3D printers,” Czechowicz said.

The professor located an open-source design on www.longliveyoursmile.com and created his first prototype within 10 hours.

He immediately brought the sample mask — and his vision — to RVCC President Alfred Williams and health officials at Valley Regional Hospital. There, he met with the procurement and supply manager, Angela Paquette, to see if the mask met medical standards to help health care workers. When Paquette returned from a briefing with Valley Regional Hospital administration, she gave Czechowicz the go-ahead to produce the masks for the hospital.

“I was restless and wanted to do something to help,” said Czechowicz as he watched the printers slicing the prototype. But he knew that producing 10 masks per day would not be enough.

He then shared the open-source mask design with the Sugar River Technical Center to get their 3D printers to turn some out as well. Czechowicz then contacted the Whelen Engineering Company in Charlestown. Jim Putnam, tooling manager at Whelen, and Czechowicz worked on cutting back printing time from 10 hours per unit to four hours per unit. Still, Czechowicz knew they had to do more. He reached out to Whelen Engineering President and CEO George Whelen who committed to manufacture the masks for the region.

Since the initial meeting, Whelen has adapted the original design and created a steel mold that will take a couple of days to set up. Soon, the plant will be able to manufacture these masks by the hundreds.

“Our people are on the front line, I want to do whatever it takes to help out,” Czechowicz said. “I’ve been in the business, I know what they need.”

The mask that will be making its way to local medical workers consists of two components which allows for the felt pads of current masks to be cut into thirds and slipped into the piece of equipment, creating three times the number of available masks at any given time. While the prototype mask was made of polylactic (PLA), Whelen is trying to insource medical grade plastic.

“This all started with Ken saying we can put our 3D printers to use,” Williams said. “I am really proud of what Ken has done and he is a major part of RVCC.”

Although Whelen will take over the production for the masks, Czechowicz and RVCC will remain in contact with the engineering firm as well as local and state officials to help in this time of crisis. RVCC has also worked with the Widmer and Davis Artisan Distilleries in Newport to create hand sanitizer out of ultrasound gel.

“Each person in the community can do something. We are all in this together,” Czechowicz said.

Czechowicz would like to give a special thanks to Alfred Williams, RVCC staff, Jim Putnam, Angela Paquette and Valley Regional Hospital staff.

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