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Cedar Rapids St. Luke’s staff, patients create medical devices and other tools
Some patents pending, other devices shared freely with hospitals
CEDAR RAPIDS --- Jean Weber wanted to literally smooth the way for premature babies.
The neonatal intensive care unit nurse noticed when she wheeled an infant in an incubator bed from the delivery room at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital into the elevator to take the baby to the NICU, the ridges where the elevator door closes caused the 300-pound bed to bump and rumble.
“Every time I wheeled a baby across that I cringed,” Weber said. “I would think, ‘What is that baby hearing?’.”
Weber went to St. Luke’s medical innovation laboratory, called “generate,” where she developed a device that spans the elevator entrance, keeping the doors open and creating a smooth ramp across the threshold. She’s now refining the tool with a single piece of plastic for stability and handles so practitioners can position it without having to touch the floor.
“My goal is to make two of them so there is one on each floor and hang them at the elevator entrance,“ Weber said.
The tool was one of 30 featured this week at a Maker Faire at St. Luke’s. Since the lab opened in November 2019, doctors, nurses, team members and patients have developed more than 700 projects, said Rose Hedges, St. Luke’s nursing research and innovation coordinator.
One of the device creators featured this week was Kyle Spading, 36, of Fairfax, who developed a combination stylus and pill box. Spading, a former tight end for the Iowa Hawkeyes, injured his neck and spine in a rollover crash in 2011. He was in outpatient therapy at St. Luke’s when he had the idea for the device.
“He came down with his dad and we got to work,” Hedges said.
Lab provides space to try, fail, try again
The medical technology and learning lab, on the hospital’s main floor, houses equipment that includes 3D printers, a laser cutter, drills and saws. The space, created through a partnership with a Boston company called MakerHealth, is the first hospital-based hands-on fabrication lab in the Midwest.
Jose Gomez-Marquez, a MakerHealth co-founder, flew from Spain to Cedar Rapids for the Maker Faire at St. Luke’s.
“I’m just really proud of these folks,” he said of the creators. “You’re not going to find a single designer or traditionally-trained engineer. For most of them, they had never made anything before. Now they use these devices and tools like it’s an extension of their natural training.”
Gomez-Marquez talks about the St. Luke’s lab in his presentations around the world, and St. Luke’s is further along than other hospitals attempting to create maker spaces for staff, he said. One thing he loves about the Cedar Rapids project is how health care providers and patients have space and time to create a project, fail and then try again.
St. Luke’s staff have a couple of lab-developed projects in the process of becoming patented, Hedges said. For others, staff make designs available open source so other health care providers can try them out.
COVID-19 sparked many inventions
When The Gazette interviewed Hedges in December 2019 about the new innovation lab, she said she hoped it would help with staff retention. “If you're engaged in your work, it's likely you're going to stay and keep doing what you're doing,” she said at the time.
But a few months later, COVID-19 struck and health care providers were on the front lines — working long hours in dangerous conditions to care for patients and reduce infection from a virus we knew very little about.
During the pandemic, Hedges and Clayton Skousen developed a cloth face mask with a pocket for an air filter. They made the pattern available for free online, where it was downloaded in more than 100 countries, according to a 2020 Gazette article. A YouTube video with instructions on sewing the Olson mask — named in honor of 1930s maker and nurse Lyla Mae Olson — now has 3.9 million views.
Another device made in the innovation lab during the pandemic was a clear box used to reduce the spread of air droplets when a breathing tube is put down a patient’s throat. St. Luke’s staff used the lab’s laser cutter to engrave stethoscopes with the hospital floor to reduce infections.
Innovation lab may help with staff retention
Although burnout from COVID-19 caused some health care practitioners nationwide to leave the profession, involvement in the St. Luke’s maker space seems to have contributed to better retention.
“For about 350 users of the time, we asked them questions about feeling valued by leadership and about their involvement in the lab,” Hedges said. “We’re eager to be able to share that in the fall. It’s looking very nice.”
For Weber, the NICU nurse, having the skills and permission to develop tools to improve patient care has added to her job satisfaction.
“I feel they really value our ideas and our doing something about our ideas by having this available,” she said. “I’ve tried all different ideas. Every time I come with an idea they are 100 percent willing to try.”
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