AUSTIN (KXAN) — Doctors and nurses on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic are running into a problem: Wearing medical masks for 12 or 14 hours straight causes strain on their ears from the loops that secure the masks to their faces.
Hospitals are requiring health workers to wear masks throughout their shifts to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
“We’ve heard stories of ears literally bleeding from having to wear a mask all day,” said Janan Miller. She saw a solution on Facebook, 3D-printed mask extenders that a Boy Scout in another city was making, and called her son into the room.
“Immediately he got started printing,” she said.
Brooks Miller, a Gorzycki Middle School 8th grader, is on the autism spectrum. His parents got him a 3D printer and found it’s something he enjoys. He rallied friends with their own printers, and together they produced 500 extenders in their first week to give to health care professionals, firefighters and police officers.
“Being in our position, we felt like there wasn’t really much that we could do,” Janan Miller said. “I’m thrilled that he’s able to do something and he’s able to contribute using his niche, which is science and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).”
Now, with several friends’ 3D printers running around the clock, she estimates they’re able to produce about 400 extenders a day. They’ve shipped the pieces to New York, Kentucky and Michigan, as well as to healthcare and public service employees across central Texas.
The small pieces of plastic wrap around the back of the head and include hooks to secure a mask so the loops are not wrapped around the user’s ears.
Anyone interested in commissioning a 3D printer to make the extenders can find the public file here and contact Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘I just thought it would be helpful’
Brooks Miller usually uses the 3D printer to make whatever interests a typical 8th-grader. “The latest I printed before this was a bunch of cool s’s,” he explained. “I just have a collection of them.”
He had originally planned to pass out the orange designs to friends at school, but when campuses closed, he switched gears.
The Millers found a public 3D printer file for the mask extenders and started their machine working on them.
“I just thought it would be helpful,” Brooks said.
After some tweaks to the process, they sped up their production of the extenders. “At the current rate, I’m printing six of them every 50 minutes,” Brooks said, and the printer runs constantly from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed.
‘All the difference’
Nurses and doctors at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center received some of the extenders Brooks made. Jennifer Geldart, the hospital’s manager of clinical operations, distributed them to staff.
“It’s been difficult” the last few weeks, Geldart said, “but then, on the other hand, having the outpouring from all over for the hospital, the hospital workers, the front line staff, it’s been really uplifting.”
Wearing a mask all day puts a lot of strain on a healthcare worker’s ears she said, and they were fortunate to receive some of the extenders early on. They help, and so does the feeling of being appreciated.
“The smallest little things really make a difference,” Geldart said. “You think that you’re not helping, but you really are making all the difference to us. You know, we’re away from our families, we want to be there with them also, but just having the extra support during these difficult times has meant the world to us.”
The printing group is currently working on a batch of 2,000 extenders for the Austin Police Department. Janan and Brooks delivered the first 200 of them Monday afternoon.
The nonprofit Geri’s Locker is also accepting donations for materials — spools of plastic filament to keep the machines running. Janan said they’ll keep printing as long as there’s a need.
“You can’t put into words how much we appreciate the efforts of those on the front lines,” she said.
It’s why they include thank-you notes with all their deliveries, a show of support for those who are sacrificing to keep everyone else safe and healthy. “Thank you for being on the front lines,” Brooks said, “and putting your life at risk to save others.”