Five mechanical engineering students are designing an infant resuscitator to help newborns in underdeveloped areas breathe.

The Global AIR (Assistance of Infant Resuscitation) team is made up of Garret Burks of Harrisonburg, Va.; Jamie Cabaleiro of Cary, N.C.; Megan Cash of Felton, Del.; Lisa Gonzalez of Fairfax, Va.; and Ashley Taylor of Fort Chiswell, Va. They wanted to work together on their senior design project and do something to make a difference.

The Global AIR team includes, from left, Lisa Gonzalez, Jamie Cabaleiro, Garret Burks, Megan Cash, and Ashley Taylor.
The Global AIR team includes, from left, Lisa Gonzalez, Jamie Cabaleiro, Garret Burks, Megan Cash, and Ashley Taylor.

“I think the biggest motivator for me was that we are going to devote one year of our time to the senior design project,” Burks said. “I wanted to work on something that could have an immediate impact on people.”

The team’s mentors, Al Wicks, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Dr. Andre A. Muelenaer Jr., associate professor of pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Science, pointed the students toward the need for an infant resuscitator that could function without electricity, which can be spotty in underdeveloped countries.

Students travel to Malawi

Burks and Taylor traveled to Malawi this summer through funding provided by the Scieneering program, of which they are both participants, to see the need firsthand and assess the local resources that could be used to develop a sustainable neonatal resuscitator.

“The trip has been really helpful for our senior design because it’s near impossible to design for an environment that you’ve never experienced,” Taylor said.

Burks and Taylor visited rural hospitals and outreach clinics. Other countries often donate equipment to hospitals in Malawi, but this doesn’t necessarily address the problems, they said.

“The physicians in Malawi showed us the labels on an ultrasound’s probes and they were all written in German. No one could understand them. The monitor for the machine was also in German,” Taylor said. “I think that was a good example for us that even when people have the best intentions – donations that are given with the best hearts – you really have to invest in the people and the local technology.”

Burks added, “We saw a lot of inoperable equipment in the hospitals that was unable to be repaired due to lack of resources, both human and material.” Donated equipment couldn’t be used because of unreliable electricity and surges, they said

Garret Burks and Ashley Taylor pose for a picture in Malawi.
Garret Burks and Ashley Taylor traveled to Malawi in 2013 with Dr. Penny Muelenaer, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.

A functional solution

Global AIR is building on what Burks and Taylor learned in Malawi to design a functional solution. The students want to use parts available in Malawian hardware stores so “it can be fixed there and sustained,” Burks said. “They would also like to keep the total cost under $100.

They plan for the two vital functions of the resuscitator – suction to remove anything blocking a newborn’s airway and inflation to fill the infant’s lungs for the first time – to operate without electricity. They also want to provide continuous positive pressure, or regular airflow that may be necessary for infants at greatest risk. This technology is currently not available in resource-challenged environments.

While Global AIR plans to have a device for use in Malawi before graduation in May 2014, the students hope it won’t stop there. “The way I like to think about it is that our project is inspired by Malawi, but we hope that this project will reach other developing areas, too,” Gonzalez said.

The device could be useful in developed countries, as well. “The secondary market would be any area hit by a natural disaster,” Cabaleiro said. “When Hurricane Sandy came through, nurses pumped manually to provide air for all of the babies hour after hour for over two days. Our design could be a source of backup.”

Garret Burks works with villagers in Malawi to build a new water pump.
Garret Burks works with villagers in Malawi to build a new water pump. Burks and Ashely Taylor spent a week of their month-long trip to Malawi assisting Dr. Penny Muelenaer with a water sanitation project while visiting hospitals and outreach clinics to collect information for their senior research project.

Focused on a solution

Team members also took a trip to the neonatal intensive care unit at Carilion Roanoke (Va.) Memorial Hospital.

“For me, the trip was motivating and self-renewing in our project,” Cash said. “In the U.S., it’s less likely that a baby is born prematurely than in an underdeveloped nation. It’s unfair that the needs are greater in these countries, yet they have no resources to meet the needs.”

They hope to have the first step toward a solution.

“It’s a really good process for us as engineers, to start from the ground up. It’s very humbling,” Taylor said. “I think one thing we really have embraced is interdisciplinary connections across campus, Montgomery County, Roanoke, and Malawi. We realized we don’t have all of the answers to solve our problems and that’s OK. When we ask for help and guidance, we make a lot more progress.”

They also have a determination to see it through.

“We are going to make this happen,” Gonzalez said. “We can’t wait to deliver the final project to our friends in Malawi next summer.”

Spotlight on innovation
Spotlight on innovation

Through the Scieneering program at Virginia Tech, Ashley Taylor is working on an electronic sensor that can help detect signs of cerebral palsy in infants.