BYU Students Give Breath to Newborns in Developing World

Contributed By By Ryan Morgenegg, Church News staff writer

  • 22 May 2014

(left to right) Daniel Jankowski and Jordan Peterson demonstrate the NeoLife neonatal ventilator to Dr. Erick Gerday.  Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU.

Article Highlights

  • One million sick or premature newborns in third-world countries die every year due to lack of oxygen.
  • BYU’s Engineering Capstone program developed a portable ventilator that cost only $500 to produce.
  • Doctors believe that the device will be saving lives in a matter of months.

PROVO, UTAH

According to the World Health Organization, about 1 million sick or premature newborns in third-world countries die every year due to the lack of oxygen. Mortality rates for infants in developing nations are high because health care workers don’t have the equipment of developed nations. That's why some BYU engineering students have developed a revolutionary piece of equipment that will save the lives of thousands of infants.

A typical newborn intensive care unit in the United States has a ventilator that gives oxygen to affected infants continuously until they no longer need breathing assistance, but these units cost about $40,000 and are in short supply in third-world countries. Parents in developing countries with infants needing oxygen must often tirelessly squeeze a hand-pumped ventilator 24 hours a day.

“You see people sitting in the corners of clinics trying to breathe for their baby, trying to stimulate them, and trying to do whatever they can do to keep them alive,” said Ken Richardson, a neonatologist at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center. “It’s heartbreaking.”

With a $20,000 grant from philanthropist John Krupa, students in BYU’s Engineering Capstone program created a portable ventilator that costs $500 to produce. Using vital input from Dr. Ken Richardson and a fellow neonatologist, Erick Gerday, students spent the entire school year refining a device and building off the work of a Capstone team from last year.

“To see the students so engaged in their work was incredible,” said Jim Trent, external relations manager for BYU’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and adjunct faculty coach. “They had such focus and determination because the goal of the project was to save lives. As the team’s coach, I saw the Holy Ghost help us in our professional lives. It was present in our discussions about how to solve the problems we faced and was with us when we asked and [they] listened.”

The students engineered the device entirely on their own—including the complicated printed circuit board that can be mass produced at a small cost. The student-built ventilator can last more than 100 million life cycles (in-and-out breaths of a child), or well past two years.

“To have something that literally, in its present form, can be manufactured and used on babies after testing, is really remarkable, given the limitations that these students had,” said Dr. Richardson.

Wes Christensen consults with Dr. Ken Richardson and Dr. Erick Gerday as John Krupa looks on. Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU.

BYU Capstone team NeoLife creates a budget neonatal ventilator that can easily be used in developing countries. Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU.

BYU Capstone team NeoLife creates a budget neonatal ventilator that can easily be used in developing countries. Photo by Jaren Wilkey, BYU.

To come up with a device that performs all the vital functions of a regular ventilator but for 80 times less the cost, the students stripped down all the bells and whistles and focused on the most necessary components. That meant fitting a custom circuit board, an air pump, solenoid, pressure control valves, and airflow valves into a container not much bigger than a shoebox.

Along the way, the students consulted closely with Dr. Gerday and Dr. Richardson on specifications and design requirements.

“They are the ones who have been to the clinics and the hospitals on humanitarian trips and have seen some of the patients who would use this,” said Wes Christensen, a senior mechanical engineering student. “They knew exactly what we needed for these patients. We could not have done it without their aid.”

Brother Krupa and both doctors believe the device will be saving lives in a matter of months. After appropriate testing is complete, Dr. Gerday has targeted the Philippines and then parts of Africa as first implementation locations, thanks to contacts he has developed through his work with LDS Charities. As for the students, they may never end up traveling across the world to see their device save struggling newborns, but their Capstone experience will stay with them throughout their lives.

“There are very few times in your life when you get to work on something as important as this,” said Daniel Jankowski, one of the students. “I realized every person has talents that they can bless people’s lives with. We can do so much good in this world if we apply the talents God has given us.”