Skip to main content

Military Health System

Important Notice about Pharmacy Operations

Change Healthcare Cyberattack Impact on MHS Pharmacy Operations. Read the statement to learn more. 

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).

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...

Article Around MHS
Aug 14, 2023

Senior Warrant Officer Awarded Soldier's Medal for Saving Lives

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Nigel P. Huebscher, command chief warrant officer for the 1st Aviation Brigade, speaks after receiving the Soldier's Medal for risking his life to save others during a ceremony at Fort Novosel, Alabama, on Aug. 7, 2023. (U.S. Army photo by Kelly Morris)

When mere seconds mattered, U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Nigel P. Huebscher, command chief warrant officer for the 1st Aviation Brigade, was first on the scene of a house fire near Bonifay, Florida, on Oct. 9, 2022. He helped save the lives of two residents.

Article Around MHS
Aug 11, 2023

Army Medical Corps Provides Continuity of Care for 248 Years

Ensuring trained and ready medical forces, particularly combat trauma surgeons, is critical to support soldiers and other service personnel in combat. Army medicine is using individual critical task lists, centrally managing trauma surgery personnel and assets, and building military-civilian partnerships with civilian level I trauma centers to ensure surgeons are getting the experience needed for battlefield surgery. (Photo: Ronald Wolf/U.S. Army)

Only 43 days separate the creations of the continental army that was formed by the original 13 American colonies and the Army Medical Corps. That short period of time speaks to the importance the corps plays in the mission of the Army.

Article Around MHS
Jul 24, 2023

Flight Medic First to Receive New Nebraska National Guard Heroism Medal

Nebraska Governor Jim Pillen and U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Daryl Bohac, Nebraska adjutant general, present the Nebraska National Guard Heroism Medal to U.S. Army Sgt. Brandi Sullivan during the Nebraska Adjutant General Change of Command Ceremony, on July 8, 2023, at the Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Nebraska.  (Photo: U.S. Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jamie Titus)

“To any individual serving with or supporting the Nebraska Military Department who has distinguished himself/herself by heroism, in saving the life, limb, or eyesight of a fellow citizen.” Those were the words read describing the newly authorized Nebraska National Guard Heroism Medal presented during the Nebraska Adjutant General Change of Command ...

Article Around MHS
Jul 5, 2023

Medical Service Corps: 106 Years of Diverse Health Service

Soldiers assigned to 129th Area Support Medical Company and Forward Support MEDEVAC Platoon, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, conduct patient movement operations for aeromedical evacuation during a training in Slobozia, Romania, on June 1. This year marks 106 years of support from medical service corps officers. (Photo: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Laura Torres)

Whether in everyday patient care, clinical research, or by performing the administrative tasks needed to run U.S. Army hospitals, medical service corps officers have provided health care to veterans, soldiers, and their families for 106 years.

Article Around MHS
Jun 12, 2023

Navy Medicine at D-Day: Stories of Valor and Sacrifice

Navy medical personnel help evacuate wounded soldiers at Normandy, June 1944. (Photo Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery)

On the morning of June 6, 1944, Navy physician Lt. (j.g.) Frank Ramsey, Jr., and Pharmacist’s Mate Third Class Byron Dary landed on Omaha Beach with the 6th Naval Beach Battalion. Upon hitting the beach, the physician and hospital corpsman rushed to the aid of wounded U.S. Army personnel lying near a burning half-track. In minutes, the vehicle ...

Article Around MHS
May 19, 2023

Navy Medicine at War: Stories of Service and Sacrifice at the Battle of Coral Sea

Throughout the Battle of the Coral Sea, U.S. Navy medical personnel serving shipboard played important roles keeping sailors in the fight while providing life-saving medical care under the severest of conditions. (Courtesy Photo)

The Battle of the Coral Sea was fought primarily by carrier-based planes across this marginal sea off the northeast coast of Australia from May 4 to 8, 1942. Throughout the battle, U.S. Navy medical personnel serving shipboard played important roles keeping sailors in the fight while providing life-saving medical care under the severest of conditions. ...

Article Around MHS
Apr 10, 2023

American Medical Center in Europe to Celebrate 70 Years

U.S. soldiers, airmen and civilian staff at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center  provide care to U.S. service members and Afghan civilians who were injured in a series of attacks outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. (Photo by Marcy Sanchez, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center)

Landstuhl Regional Medical Center is slated to host a week-long celebration, open to all Department of Defense cardholders, marking 70 years of selfless service and military medicine in Germany, from April 11-14.

Article Around MHS
Mar 17, 2023

Navy Medical Corps 152nd Anniversary Celebrated at Navy Medical Readiness and Training Command Bremerton

As part of the tradition of recognizing the Navy Medical Corps 152nd anniversary, on May 3, congratulatory letters from Navy Medicine Dental Corps, Civilian Corps, Hospital Corps, Medical Service Corps and Nurse Corps directors were read by representatives of each distinct entity as was well-wishes by U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Guido Valdes, Medical Corps chief (Photo by Douglas H Stutz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton public affairs officer)

It was on March 3, 1871, that 153 U.S. Navy physicians were officially recognized as a staff corps to parallel their professional status with other naval officers. That date was readily acknowledged 152 years later on March 3, 2023, at Navy Medicine Readiness Training Command Bremerton with an anniversary celebration for Navy Medical Corps officers ...

Last Updated: July 11, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on X Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery