As COVID-19 wreaks havoc around the globe, the Cell and Tissue Imaging Center at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is dark and quiet, illuminated by the faint glow of 3D printers. A solitary figure monitors the progress of the machines as they emit their low, hypnotic whir. That reverberation? It’s the sound of preparedness.
Steven Arnold of St. Jude Information Services is part of a project to create medical face shields by repurposing 3D printers from departments across campus. It’s one way he and his colleagues can ensure the safety of clinical staff at a time when personal protective equipment is scarce.
Initiative and ingenuity
Soon after the pandemic began, Victor Amador Diaz of Diagnostic Imaging suggested that the hospital’s staff explore the use of 3D printers to create medical face shields. Fascinated by the idea, Julian Earl of Medical Content Outreach contacted Duane Currier of Chemical Biology and Therapeutics.
Before the pandemic, Currier had been his department’s go-to person for creating custom labware.
So, when Earl suggested working together on a project to print face shields, Currier agreed.
“Most of the 3D printers on campus were idle,” Currier says, “and we could use the resources we have to print items that were in short supply.”
Anatomy of a face shield
A 3D printer works by extruding a thin ribbon of melted plastic onto a solid surface. The machine is programmed to print one layer, then another and another, gradually building an object.
The project begins with a 3D depiction of the item to be created. Using software, a technician “slices” the image, creating a computer file that includes coordinates to indicate where the printer should release filament.
Earl sent the design for face-shield headbands to Currier, who performed the slicing and provided a file that could be used in the project.
After identifying which departments had 3D printers, Earl recruited volunteers. Some, like Arnold, printed the face-shield headbands in labs and offices across campus. Others, such as Griffith and Eric Enemark, PhD, of Structural Biology, used 3D printers in their homes. Each face-shield headband takes about 45 minutes to print, at a unit cost of less than $1.
“When this project began, everything was changing quickly,” Earl says. “As a result, the needs of the institution were shifting. To stay on top of those needs, we had to be able to pivot quickly and help out wherever necessary. These individuals jumped in to use their resources and their skills to help out.”
Mareko Huley in the hospital’s print shop figured out how to use lamination film to make the clear shields that were ultimately affixed to the headbands.
When Earl delivered his first batch of shields to Nursing staff, the responses were enthusiastic.
“I took them to the Medicine Room on a Friday,” says Charles Coe, RN, director of outpatient services in Nursing. “I got several emails over the weekend from people saying that they really liked them and that they were excited to know that the shields were being made by people at St. Jude.”
Thus far, Earl and his colleagues have produced about 150 face shields. Coe says he wants all hospital employees to know how much their support means to clinicians.
“It’s amazing what the minds at St. Jude can accomplish,” Coe says. “We are so appreciative for the support of our smart and resourceful employees. The response of everyone during this crisis has been stellar.”