Back to Top Skip to main content Skip to sub-navigation

How Spec Ops and DHA Teamed Up to Build an Inexpensive DIY Ventilator

Image of Nurse checks up on a patient in a mechanical ventilator. In this historical photo, a nurse checks up on a patient in a mechanical ventilator called an iron lung. During the polio epidemic, patients often relied on iron lungs to keep them breathing when paralysis affected their lungs’ ability to function (Photo provided by the National Museum of Health and Medicine).

Recommended Content:

Our History

As the nation was gripped with fear in the early phase of the coronavirus pandemic last year, top doctors zeroed in on one particular concern: a potentially catastrophic shortage of ventilators.

The projected shortfall was about 75,000 at the time.

The soaring demand for these life-saving medical devices prompted a group of inventive service members from inside and outside the Military Health System to set in motion a highly unusual - and highly successful - effort to solve that problem.

The "Hack-a-Vent" challenge called for volunteers to create an inexpensive, non-FDA-approved ventilator that could be made with off-the-shelf items available at home supply or auto parts stores, or via 3D printers.

The evolution of the "Hack-a-Vent" program, initially launched under the auspices of Special Operations Command, spotlights the rapid innovation sparked by the pandemic and how the MHS has relied on outside-the-box thinking to meet the needs of the military community.

The challenge, launched in March 2020, was to design ventilators that would be portable, smaller than traditional ventilators, not use any parts from commercial ventilators, and cost less than $300 each. The commercial ventilators that hospitals typically use cost from $10,000 to $15,000 apiece.

The Defense Health Agency's COVID-19 Joint Acquisition Task Force took up the challenge in late March and created a rapid-response team of medical professionals and engineers. The Naval Surface Warfare Center Panama City Division (NSWC PCD) was one group that took on the ventilator challenge. Leveraging the funding and material resources provided by NSWC PCD's Center for Innovation, a team began work on this critical effort right away.

At NSWC PCD, mechanical, electrical, and systems engineers, along with diving and life support subject matter experts, created a functional design within a week.

It "didn't have all the bells and whistles, but was easy to use by doctors," said Andrew Schicho, an engineer and one of the design leaders.

A second iteration was designed by March 31 under round two of the challenge, he said.

On April 5, the project was funded. The designed ventilator by now had LCD displays, electronic feedback control, oxygen-level monitors, and a breathing loop. By late April, the team's prototype was in animal model testing.

"So, we had a functioning medical device in one month," Schicho said.

"We kept ours as cheap as possible in order to honor the original intent of the program and keep the design accessible to low-dollar efforts," Schicho said. The dollar amounts for vent designs were upped from $300 to $500 and then to $1,000 as more features were added.

Ventilators being transported to the Federal Emergency Management Agency
Boxes filled with ventilators are loaded onto a truck at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey. The ventilators were transported to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the lead federal agency for COVID-19 response. (Photo by: Air Force Maj. Brian Wagner, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst).

"Usability testing began at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on April 27, and then a commercial manufacturer did a full review and suggested solutions for medical device grade materials, Schicho said.

Schicho's team went so far as to write up the documentation to get the prototype approved by the FDA, but, by the end of the year, there was a pause in the need for emergency ventilators, he explained. This was because of increased manufacturing of standard ventilators, better allocation to patients, and work-arounds such as shared ventilators. "FDA approval was never the intent," he added.

The U.S. military's unique role in developing new technology for life-saving ventilators dates back several generations.

The first modern respirators were developed during World War I and World War II, said Alan Hawk, historical collections manager at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland.

These early ventilators increased the air pressure surrounding the patient's chest to push air out of the patient's lungs and decreased air pressure to allow air to flow back into the patient's lungs. But they were bulky and not easily transportable to the front lines. The devices, known as the Iron Lung, were used during the polio epidemic from the 1930's until 1960, Hawk noted.

The next era of innovation owes a great deal to Dr. Forrest Bird, who had been in the Army Air Corps during WWII.

Bird designed positive-pressure oxygen masks for warfighters who could then fly airplanes at levels up to 35,000 feet. He also created pressurized "anti-G suits" to counteract pilot blackout as the military's new jets hit the fleet at the end of WWII.

Bird was responsible for the development and production of the positive air pressure Bird "Mark 7" respirator and its previous iterations. The Mark 7 was designed in 1957, taking place at the same time that anesthetists were adopting controlled ventilation techniques for patients during surgeries, according to the journal "Anesthesia and Intensive Care."

Bird's Mark 7 Respirator and its derivatives became widely used around the world and are still in use in many places today.

But Bird's greatest contribution to military medical history is the "Baby Bird" ventilator, said Dale Smith, a professor of military medicine and history at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland.

The neonatal ventilator was invented in 1969 at Wilford Hall in San Antonio, Texas, initially to meet the needs of babies born with acute respiratory distress syndrome at the Air Force military complex, Smith said. Bird saw the potential for its use and began manufacturing the product.

The Baby Bird vent was "the workhorse" of the neonatology unit during the period before pharmaceutical solutions to acute respiratory distress syndrome became available in 1990, Smith added.

"Tens of thousands of people born with respiratory distress between 1970 and 1990 are walking around today because of the Baby Bird," Smith said.

You also may be interested in...

Air Force Women's History: First Commissioned Female Physician

Article Around MHS
6/23/2022
Capt Dorothy Armstrong Elias sworn in

On March 14, 1951, Capt. (Dr.) Dorothy Armstrong Elias became the first woman physician sworn into the Air Force.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Facility Dogs Play a Vital Role in Recovery for Patients Across the MHS

Article
5/27/2022
Luke is a German Shephard facility dog.

Each dog has his or her own rank, service, and uniform and is inducted in an enlistment or commissioning ceremony. Today, the Facility Dog Program at WRNMMC includes Sully, a yellow Lab who was former President George H.W. Bush’s service dog.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Health Readiness & Combat Support

'America’s First Brain Surgeon' Served During Civil War and World War I

Article
5/17/2022
Dr. William Williams Keen Jr was a medical surgeon during the Civil War who afterwards advocated and researched medical advances so the horrors of Civil War-era medicine would not occur again. He also served in the Army during World War I.

The Army’s Dr. William Williams Keen helped to shape military medicine for more than 50 years – from the Civil War to World War I.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Military Medical Museum Celebrates 160th birthday with mobile app

Photo
5/17/2022
Military Medical Museum Celebrates 160th birthday with mobile app

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland, visitor uses the NMHM mobile app while looking at objects from the Innovations in Military Medicine Gallery.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Vietnam War Commemoration Presents DHA Director with Commemorative Flag

Article
4/28/2022
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ron Place, Defense Health Agency director, receives a commemorative Vietnam War flag from Army Maj. Gen. (Retired) Peter Aylward, The United States of America Vietnam Commemoration director. (Photo: Sonia Clark, MHS Communications)

Lt. Gen. Place receives Vietnam War commemorative flag.

Recommended Content:

Our History

A History of the Combat Helmet and the Quest to Prevent Injuries

Article
4/25/2022
Lt. Gen. George S. Patton and Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr. are pictured here in 1943 wearing the standard M1 helmet, sometimes called the "steel pot." (Photo: 1st Infantry Division Courtesy Photo)

The combat helmet has evolved over time to improve protection against projectiles and shock waves to reduce the risk of fatal blows and traumatic brain injuries.

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury | Our History | Injury Prevention

Ceremony Marks New Name for RIA Health Clinic to Woodson Health Clinic, Honoring World War II Combat Medic

Article
4/21/2022
Stephen Woodson looks at the plaque painting of his father, Staff Sgt. Waverly Woodson Jr., a World War II First U.S. Army combat medic hero, following the unveiling of it during a renaming dedication ceremony at Rock Island Arsenal, Illinois, April 14. The health clinic was renamed Woodson Health Clinic. (Photo: Jon Micheal Connor, ASC Public Affairs)

The Rock Island Arsenal Health Clinic received a new name in honor of a heroic First U.S. Army Soldier in a moving ceremony here in Heritage Hall April 14. The new name is the Woodson Health Clinic in honor of Staff Sgt. Waverly B. Woodson Jr.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Women's History Month highlight: All-women medic team supports mission welcoming Afghan allies

Article Around MHS
4/5/2022
Military personnel taking a walk

In late August 2021, the Department of Defense issued a call for volunteers to support Operation Allies Welcome, the federal government’s effort to safely resettle Afghan refugees.

Recommended Content:

Our History

Remembering Dr. Alexander Augusta, the U.S. Army’s First Black Doctor

Article
2/25/2022
A photo of Maj. (Dr.) Alexander Augusta among the Seventh Regiment of U.S. Colored Troops where he served as regimental surgeon during the Civil War.

Dr. Alexander Augusta was the first African American to be an Army doctor.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Paving the Way for African Americans in Military Medicine: A Look Across Time

Dentally Unready: Gen. George Washington's Lifetime of Dental Misery

Article
2/3/2022
Visitors to the George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and museum in Mount Vernon, Virginia, can see George Washington’s only remaining full denture among the collection. They include his own pulled and saved teeth, other human teeth, teeth from cows and horses that were filed to fit, and teeth carved from elephant ivory.

No, George Washington did not have wooden teeth. But he did struggle with dental problems for most of his life.

Recommended Content:

Our History | TRICARE Dental Care | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness

The British 'Limeys' Were Right: A Short History of Scurvy

Article
1/10/2022
Scurvy, a disease caused by lack of vitamin C, sickened sailors who had no access to fresh food supplies, and killed more than 2 million sailors between the 16th and 18th centuries alone.

How citrus fruits quelled the scourge of scurvy.

Recommended Content:

Health Readiness & Combat Support | Nutritional Fitness | Our History

Remembering the Military Medical Heroes of Pearl Harbor

Article
12/6/2021
Army Nurse Corps Maj. Annie G. Fox, in the newspaper

On the 80th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, MHS remembers the medical heroes that selflessly aided the casualties.

Recommended Content:

Our History | MHS Honors and Remembers

From Prosthetic Legs to Cranial Implants: How the MHS is using 3D Tech

Article
11/8/2021
3D MAC Director Peter Liacouras

30 years after the Gulf War, 3D technology is transforming medicine and lives.

Recommended Content:

Our History | Health Care Technology

USU Students Examine Civil War History to Understand the Future of Medicine

Article Around MHS
9/22/2021
Nearly 300 students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences participated in a 30-year-old-tradition of marching through the battlefield of Antietam on Aug. 20

During the Battle of Antietam, Union Major Jonathan Letterman implemented his ideas for reshaping the Army’s Medical Corps, earning him the nickname the “Father of Battlefield Medicine.”

Recommended Content:

Our History | Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences

Gen. George Washington Ordered Smallpox Inoculations for All Troops

Article
8/16/2021
Old photo of George Washington in battle

George Washington’s tactics included directing the first mass military inoculations

Recommended Content:

Our History | Immunizations
<< < 1 2 > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 2
Refine your search
Last Updated: July 28, 2021

DHA Address: 7700 Arlington Boulevard | Suite 5101 | Falls Church, VA | 22042-5101

Some documents are presented in Portable Document Format (PDF). A PDF reader is required for viewing. Download a PDF Reader or learn more about PDFs.