Like many people these days, 21-year-old college student Juan Zavala spends a lot of time alone in a room; luckily for local hospitals, his room contains 19 industrial-grade 3D printers that he is using to make medical quality face shields.
As of Tuesday night, April 7, he had printed 422 shields in the MakerSpace lab at the San Bernardino Community College District (SBCCD), for a world with a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).
These face shields are gifts for local hospitals: Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, Mountains Community Hospital in Lake Arrowhead. The district has also given face shields to the campus police department, and to Providence Healthcare Group, which operates about 10 skilled nursing facilities locally.
As hospital staff members arrive to pick up the boxes, there are no handshakes or hugs. But Zavala can tell his work is appreciated.
“Their expressions are really great,” he said after Renee and MacKenzie Limpus picked up the order for the Mountains Community Hospital. “I feel like it is a look of hope.”
Anne Viricel, chair of the San Bernardino Community College District Board of Trustees, said this project could inspire ongoing real-world partnerships for the MakerSpace. “It is a wonderful blending of art and technology,” she said.
“We appreciate our opportunity to do our part for local heroes,” she said of frontline healthcare workers. But then she lauded community college staff and faculty, who have been launched into new online environments. “We appreciate the resilience and agility of all the district's employees right now. Our community is full of local heroes.”
SBCCD was the first community college to deliver the 3D printed face shields to hospitals in this region, according to Lisa Kiplinger-Kennedy, a regional director who works on employer engagement for community colleges in the Inland Empire/Desert region. Others are right behind, including Moreno Valley College, Victor Valley College and Barstow College. These MakerSpace laboratories were developed with state money known as “Strong Workforce.”
In early March, California Community College Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley sent an email to all community colleges, asking how much personal protective equipment they had in classrooms that could help California hospitals.
“He also asked how many MakerSpace labs we have,” said Kiplinger-Kennedy. That question sparked the face shield project. Lights went on all over the Inland Empire in community college laboratories full of 3D printers, laser cutting equipment and materials, all purchased in the past few years.
The state money that paid for the MakerSpace labs came with strings attached. It requires community colleges to work directly with industry. So it was easy to make use of those new partnerships.
Stratasys, a maker of 3D printers, has specifications for printing a medical face shield approved for use by the National Institutes for Health.
Community colleges already work directly with local hospitals because they train many of the nurses, respiratory therapists and other healthcare workers in California.
“We asked hospitals if they needed these face shields,” said Kiplinger-Kennedy, who is now working from home because of the crisis. “They responded within two hours, and we had orders for 3,500 shields. We are now up to 10,000 shields, and we are open to more.”
The shields are made up of three parts, a plastic headpiece, a clear sheet of plastic and a rubber band.
SBCCD Assistant Manager of Workforce Development Roxane Joyce, who supervises Zavala, had a friend who donated 33 unopened boxes of the plastic “transparency sheets” from the Ontario-Montclair Unified School District. Other districts have given as well.
Donors who want to support the San Bernardino effort can send money through the Crafton Hills College Foundation or San Bernardino Valley College Foundation. Donations are tax-deductible in standard ways.
Stacy Jones, who directs the community college MakerSpace project in this region, said she had wanted to partner with the healthcare industry. She even chatted with her colleague Wendy Deras, who leads the healthcare outreach with regional hospitals. COVID-19 has provided the project.
“The circumstances are not good for the world, but it could not be more of an opportunity for us to show what our MakerSpace labs can do,” Jones said.
Deanna Krehbiel, director of economic development at SBCCD, is proud of the work. “For almost a hundred years, our district has assisted our local community with training our workforce. Now we're taking a step further and manufacturing personal protection face shields to help save lives.”
As for hospitals, they are relieved to have found a local source for some of the personal protective equipment that they need.
“We were very, very happy,” said Renee Limpus, an R.N. who is also the disaster coordinator for Mountains Community Hospital. She noted recent efforts to connect community colleges with industry are working.
“We know who to ask for help, and we are getting help,” said Limpus, a graduate of the nursing program at San Bernardino Valley College. “We are very, very grateful.”
She said the 3D printed shields will help protect scarce face masks, allowing them to last longer.
Carol Wagner, director of clinical initiatives at Providence Healthcare Group, agreed.
“It feels like we won the lottery,” she said. “It means so much to help protect our nurses.”
Skilled nursing facilities are now at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, but they have not typically kept many face shields on hand.
“This means a lot,” Wagner said.
The Providence group will be sharing the face shields throughout its system as it decides how to handle patients being released from the hospital back to nursing facilities.
Zavala, who drives from Adelanto to San Bernardino each day to monitor the 3D printers chug, chug, chugging along, has found a new urgency in this environment of crisis. He is now an “essential worker” as declared by the State of California. He fixes stalled out machines. He replenishes their supplies. When he has downtime, he studies for his engineering classes at Cal State San Bernardino, where all classes have gone online.
Each headpiece takes 2½ hours to print. Slowly and steadily, he works all day and into the evening on his ghost town of a campus, because he knows these face shields could save lives.
He does it for the look of hope on the faces of those who receive the shields.
“I help out at my local church, but I don't think I've ever seen an expression like that,” he said.