"The current situation is really, really bad."

“The current situation is really, really bad.”

Engineering epicurean Henry Litwhiler sat down with the crew behind Columbia’s home-grown, low-cost hazmat suit to get the skinny on their plans and progress. 

Since the West African Ebola outbreak began in December 2013, nearly five thousand people have died and many thousands more have taken ill. Those countries most affected—Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia—suffer from severely underfunded and understaffed healthcare systems and have only recently begun to receive medical aid in earnest.

In an effort to do their part to combat the disease, the Mailman School of Public Health and SEAS co-launched a Design Challenge in early October. The goal of the challenge was to provide funding and feedback for low-cost solutions to problems faced by those responding to the Ebola outbreak.

Among these issues is the problem of patient transport. Strained or nonexistent ambulance services in many parts of West Africa mean that the only way for many patients to get to the hospital is by taxi or other less-official means. This journey can open up many members of the public exposure, posing a severe challenge to containment efforts.

It was this issue which inspired Ritish Patnaik (SEAS ’16) to enter the first round of the Design Challenge. During a conversation Patnaik had with Dean Boyce, the idea for a containment suit came up. Such a suit would be worn by patients on their way to the hospital to prevent them from spreading Ebola to those around them.

“I went, pitched it, it went really well, they liked it, they gave me a hundred and fifty dollars, and the immediate thing I thought was: you need a team to do this,” said Patnaik. He proceeded to contact the other students which make up the current design team: Halvard Lange (SEAS ’14), William “Joey” Smith (SEAS ’16), Sidney Perkins (SEAS ’17), and Joshua Bazile (SEAS ’16).

The team came up with a prototype for the patient transport suit and presented it in the second round of the Challenge. After hearing comments from various professors at the presentation, however, the team decided to change their mission from protecting the world from patients to protecting doctors themselves. “First we were trying to keep Ebola contained within the suit, but then we realized it would be more viable for our project to have a suit that was for workers to keep Ebola out,” explained Bazile.

Through the Mailman School of Public Health, participants in the Design Challenge have access to healthcare workers’ opinions of the equipment they use. “A lot of the big complaints were with respect to comfort and the ability to spend longer periods of time in hazmat suits,” said Smith.

Dehydration, overheating, and sweat pooling make working in current protective gear not just uncomfortable but dangerous for all involved. As Perkins explained, “the doctors who are working West Africa are so exhausted because they’re overheated and uncomfortable that they’re prone to make mistakes in the twenty to thirty steps of taking off the suit.” Such mistakes may be at least partially responsible for the slew of healthcare worker infections that has accompanied the epidemic.

To address this, the suit’s current iteration features a hydration system, a series of cooling gel pouches, and an assortment of other components to improve wearer comfort. These facets are integrated into a single garment to cut down on the sort of complexity that leads to mistakes.

The team believes that all of this can be accomplished for less than $5 per suit. This falls well below the going rate for hazmat suits in the U.S., which can run upwards of $200 a piece. “If you create a twenty dollar suit, [workers] aren’t going to be able to use it, and in a way we’ve wasted our time,” said Patnaik.

To help cut down on costs, the team has been pursuing funding from outside organizations. “If all goes will in the sense of us getting large scale funding and support from USAID, then we should have it out in three to four weeks,” said Patnaik. “Worst case scenario, we’re looking at the end of the year.”

The team was anxious to credit both the Columbia administration and several faculty mentors for enabling their project. Among these contributors were Professor Mike Massimino, Dr. Samuel Sia, Dr. Ian Lipkin, and Dean Boyce.

Patnaik was also careful to emphasize that the project’s success up to this point has come as a result of the time and effort that team members have committed. “We’re like Guardians of the Galaxy or something,” said Patnaik. “I’m Groot.”


Doctor/magician via Shutterstock