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Friday, July 03, 2020
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Dads and sons often bond over sports, cars or fishing trips. Teaneck residents Dr. Richard Finkel and his son Sam have been sharing many hours together designing and building the prototype of a PAPR, Personal Air Purifying Respirator, to give people more safe breathing ability than a mask can provide. The project began as a shared activity for their own benefit. It may turn out to be a business opportunity.

Finkel has been caring for COVID-19 patients at Saint Clare’s Hospital in Denville since the pandemic began, with only a day off now and then. He has been working in the hospital with an N95 mask since Teaneck went into lockdown. “It’s hard to breathe,” he explained. “One of the nurses, who is very athletic, said she had a hard time breathing all day through the filtered mask.” Even with the N95 mask, he got COVID-19 but fortunately with only mild symptoms.

There were just a few of the top-tier PAPR systems for the physicians who were right on top of patients who were sick and coughing. The PAPR, an expensive device often used in virus research labs, uses a fan to blow air through a filter cartridge that blocks 99.9% of virus particles, and then around the wearer’s face so he can breathe comfortably. There should be more of these, he thought. “At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone worried about the shortage of respirators, and we knew demand would outstrip supply,” he said.

So he had an idea. He would build his own with help from Sam, a newly minted bioengineering grad from the University of Maryland, who just happened to have a 3D printer his parents bought him as a Chanukah present. “It’s a nice father-son project and we’re doing something that will be useful,” he said.

Sam was excited about the challenge of using the skills he learned in college to help his father. “Because of my dad’s interest, biomedical engineering was always of interest to me,” he said. “I did an internship printing 3D stem cells that would turn into heart tissue.” And he is happy to work with his dad, whose skill he praises. “Dad is incredibly handy,” said Sam. “There’s nothing he hasn’t been able to fix.”

Finkel did research online to see what others were doing, and made his own improvements. Their first prototype uses a full-face snorkel mask, hoses from a CPAP machine and an antiviral filter from a pulmonary function machine. Sam used a robust blower from a 3D printer.

“It started as a fun project, something that could be used,” said Finkel. “We weren’t thinking about selling in the beginning, but because of Sam’s expertise in 3D printing, it came out better than expected.” The unit will not be NIOSH certified (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), so cannot be sold as such, but has medically certified filters. The device may be beneficial for anyone who works in close contact with people who are ill, such as health aides and technologists in private practice or in nursing homes, or for anyone who finds it too uncomfortable to breathe in a surgical or N95 mask. The device can be helpful in non-medical settings as well. Finkel’s son Jacob, an HVAC specialist who repairs heating and cooling equipment, and installs air filters, tested the unit and found it made breathing easier, especially in the hot environments where he often works.

Sam recently flew to California to do some consulting work, and wore the mask on the flight. “Everyone was excited to see it, I got lots of positive reactions,” he said. “Attendants came over and said it was so cool.” But he found that it became uncomfortable a few hours into the flight. He wants to rebuild the device with more comfort in mind.

So it’s back to the drawing board, or in this case, the 3D printer, to make connections that go along with alternative parts and a bigger fan—which would not only make breathing easier but provide a cooling effect. Sam will be returning home in a couple of weeks and will start building again.

The finish line has been moved ahead. But that’s ok. There will be more time with Dad. And they’ll make a product that may help many people, whenever it’s ready.

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