A lifetime of DIY tinkering has helped a West Kootenay octogenarian and his Cowichan Valley doctor son come up with a prototype ventilator to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“He was just the kind of guy who always made what he needed,” says Dr. Graham Brockley of his father Peter. “And because of that I have sort of been raised in the same light. If we need something, we can make it.”
And right now, that need is for ventilators.
Ventilators are a key piece of equipment used in treating patients hardest hit by the novel coronavirus, which has infected hundreds of thousands of people worldwide and killed thousands.
“They’re basically an air pump,” says Brockley. “A simple one is not theoretically hard to build, but they’re in short supply.”
Brockley, a Ladysmith emergency room doctor who lives in Duncan, notes that conservatively four million Canadians could be infected with the coronavirus. “Conceivably in Canada you could have 200,000 people needing ventilators. And currently in Canada we only have 5,000 ventilators.
“It’s a huge shortfall.”
Recently Brockley recalled coming across a medical research paper describing a more low-tech, portable version of the breathing equipment. It works differently from the $50,000, high-tech pieces of equipment now in such demand. It uses a mechanical system to squeeze a ventilator bag that most ambulance attendants and nurses would recognize.
It could be quickly and easily produced, and cost hundreds of dollars to build, not tens of thousands.
Brockley took the paper to his dad, who still keeps a well-stocked machine shop in his Glade home.
“I asked him if he could build it. He looked at it and said, ‘Of course,’” recalls Brockley.
That attitude doesn’t surprise the son.
“You have to understand my dad, whenever we needed something, his first inclination was, ‘Can I make it?’” he says. “My dad built one of the first motor homes, on the back of a ’56 Pontiac station wagon chassis, in the late 1960s. We were one of the first in Canada, or at least Alberta, to have a motorhome.”
With his father on board, the younger Brockley took the paper to a fellow doctor, whose own father happens to be an mechanical engineer living in Tsawwassen.
That senior drew up proper blueprints for such a machine, and the two fathers-of-doctors began working together to build a prototype.
The elder Brockley downplays his own role.
“That guy is a robot builder, he designed the thing,” says the 87-year-old, who spent much of his career doing machine work in Alberta’s oil patch. “I’m machining the easy parts. He’s doing the software stuff.”
Peter Brockley has been working non-stop to produce the bits and pieces of a working prototype of the machine to get it out to his engineer partner in Tsawwassen as soon as possible.
“It’s fussy. I haven’t done anything this fussy in quite a while,” says Brockley, who first started apprenticing as a machinist in Britain just after the Second World War.
“But it’s just a matter of getting the material and machining the parts. I’ve been doing it quite a few years. If I need something, I just build it.”
Prototype to approval
Of course, producing a better mousetrap, so to speak, and getting it approved are two different things.
Under normal circumstances, such a process could take years. But Graham Brockley points out these aren’t normal circumstances.
“We’re in a crisis situation, and sometimes those rules get ignored in favour of saving lives,” he says. “I think the next steps would be to get medical approval from Health Canada.”
He doesn’t think there would be any serious objections from federal regulators to approving the device. After it’s been put together, he’ll have some anesthesiologist colleagues review the device and give feedback. They’ll build a second prototype, and send it off for approvals.
But he says working in such a small team, changes can be made quickly. Though the peak of the virus spread is estimated to be only a few weeks away, he thinks anything they can do will help.
“Their design is very simple, and uses an already-approved bag that hand-ventilates a person,” Dr. Brockley says.
Even if it’s not ready in time for this pandemic, he believes it could have use in the future, especially in poorer countries that can’t afford the expensive version of the equipment.
Once a manufacturer is found, Brockley thinks production could be scaled up pretty quickly.
“Every ventilator that’s produced, in a couple of weeks, even if it’s 10 or 20, when things really hit the fan, will save lives.”