A Northwell Health physician, a respiratory therapist and a 3D printing bioengineer have found a way to convert machines used for sleep apnea patients into ventilators. Stanley John, director of respiratory therapy for Northwell, shows how it is done. Credit: Northwell Health

Northwell Health said it has started to convert bi-level positive airway pressure machines into ventilators for COVID-19 patients.

BiPAP machines usually are used for patients who have chronic obstruction lung disease, lung injury tied to heart failure, or severe sleep apnea. Northwell said it has about 350 of the machines in the health system, and converting them has the potential to save thousands of lives.

"We just started doing this late last week, and we've already saved lives," said Dr. Hugh Cassiere, medical director of respiratory therapy services at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, which is operated by Northwell.

New Hyde Park-based Northwell, which operates 11 Long Island hospitals, said Wednesday it has been designing and 3D printing a small plastic T-adapter, which is then attached to the devices on one end.

The adapter then connects to an endotracheal tube, which is used to intubate a patient, Cassiere said. The BiPAP machine is not generally used to intubate patients, he said.

Northwell said it has a enough ventilators at the moment, but this will help if there is a large COVID-19 surge.

"The BiPAP conversion helps with the unpredictable nature of a surge at a specific hospital," Cassiere said. "The great unknown is, how many ventilators do you really need if there is a surge? This helps alleviate the concern."

Northwell has not said how many ventilators it has in its system.

Cassiere said doctors in China and Italy also tried to use BiPAP machines on patients, but because they're not designed to intubate patients — they're used with a mask over the mouth — they "predictably failed."

Northwell said it can print about 150 to 200 of the T-adapters daily for its system. 

3D printing has played a big role in the battle against COVID-19. Last week, Northwell said it was printing about 1,500 nasal swabs daily for COVID-19 testing.

Hospitals and medical offices nationwide have said a lack of nasopharyngeal swabs has led them to severely limit whom they test. 

Stony Brook University Hospital also has turned to 3D printing to help with shortages. Faculty and students there are using 3D printing to make protective face shields.

The face shields being used by medical staff are designed by iCREATE, a program under the Division of Information Technology at Stony Brook.

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