We’ve all seen what N95 respirator masks can do to the faces of health-care workers. The air-tight masks make for painful facial bruising, dark red lines and cuts, but the fact that they filter at least 95 per cent of airborne particles means they are needed in the fight against COVID-19.
Kayla Tomkins, a Practical Nursing student at Georgian, and her sister Amanda, an electrical and biomedical engineering student in the iBioMed program at McMaster University, have not only seen the painful images, Kayla has also shared stories with her sister about what it was like working in health care during SARS in 2003, which she’d heard from her teachers at Georgian.
The fact that Ontario’s first death from COVID-19 was in Barrie, where the sisters were both born and raised, really made them want to help in some way. Due to their mother’s health issues, Kayla is unable to be on the health-care frontlines to help, as she’d like.
But, on March 26, Amanda received an email from one of her professors at McMaster, issuing a challenge to students who had expressed interest in helping with the university’s COVID-19 research initiatives. The task was to design a mask similar to an N95 mask, with a tight seal but at the same time, be comfortable enough to wear for hours without bruising.
The sisters saw an opportunity to collaborate, drawing on the unique knowledge each has gained in their postsecondary programs.
“I have gotten fitted for an N95 mask and although I’ve never worn one for a long time, I knew what they felt like, whereas Amanda has never felt a 95 mask. She’s seen one, but never felt one,” explains Kayla. “So, it worked because I’ve had experience in how it’s supposed to fit, where it’s supposed to fit, and why certain things are where they are on a 95 mask.”
They also looked to their mother’s sleep apnea machine, which has an air-tight mask made of a silicone material.
“She can wear it for 12-plus hours without getting any bruises or marks on her,” explains Kayla. “So that’s why we took the silicone approach, just from her experience. She’s worn it for five years and she’s never gotten bruises from it and it’s still air tight in the places that we need it to be.”
After building the first model with some blue clay they had at home, Amanda put together a proposal and sent it to her professor. Two days later, she received a call with faculty from her program, as well as the engineering’s associate dean of research to discuss how to move the sisters’ idea along to the manufacturing stage. A team at McMaster is currently in the process of developing a prototype, based on Kayla and Amanda’s model, that will be tested. They are also reaching out to manufacturers for partnership opportunities.
“Our whole goal is to make this mask to replace an N95 mask in an emergency,” says Kayla. “It might not be 100 per cent as good, but in an emergency situation, you could take a surgical mask and put this mask on top of it and it would transform it into kind of an N95 mask.”