For the past eight weeks, on the campus of Stetson University, all has been quiet as the 2,000-plus students who normally would be holed up in computer labs and library nooks — or eating in the cafeteria and attempting to unwind on the quad — are completing their school work from home, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

But recently, in the Innovation Lab of the duPont-Ball Library at the heart of campus, the steady whirring of a 3D printer could be heard.

For associate professor of health sciences Michele Skelton, the upending of daily life and the urgent need for supplies for health care workers also came with an idea.

“My anatomy and physiology students 3D-print healthy organs and print pathological ones for comparison,” Skelton said. “But we didn’t get to them this semester.”

That meant the 3D printers, and all the supplies usually available for students, were sitting idle.

First, Skelton, a longtime DeLandite and professor at Stetson, reached out to Sue Ryan, the dean of the duPont-Ball Library and Learning Technologies, to inquire about printing face masks.

But the plastics used to create a 3D-printed object are not the right kind for safely filtering breath. After talking with former students — now nurses, physician assistants and others at local health care facilities — Skelton hit upon an idea: printed ear guards.

“The law of physics applies,” Skelton said. “Ear guards take pressure off the sensitive area behind the ear.”

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NOTCHED — Professor Tandy Grubbs demonstrates how 3D printed ear guards remove pressure from the sensitive backs of the ear.

For health care workers, who must wear face masks for stretches of at least eight hours while at work, the elastic used to hold the mask in place can become incredibly uncomfortable, Skelton said.

“I just wanted to provide a little comfort or relief,” she said.

Ryan ran with the idea.

“Anytime anybody hears you have 3D printing capability, you get emails and phone calls,” Ryan said. “But they often have a fundamental misunderstanding about how it works. There are real limitations, not the least of which is liability.”

“Michele was the first one to come with a really viable idea,” Ryan said. “She came with something that was not a PPE (personal protective equipment), but a real comfort item.”

The plan for the ear guards worked with the plastic the university had available, Ryan said, and Skelton provided a template found in the public domain for the ear guards. The template has different notches in case the mask elastic stretches out.

Ryan’s two full-time Innovation Lab managers, Tony Gunas and Chris Finkle, began the laborious process of cranking out ear guards.

Printing them out

PRINTING THEM OUT — Chris Finkle, a staff member at Stetson University’s Innovation Lab, monitored the 3D printing of hundreds of ear guards for health care workers.

“Printing takes a long time; one ear guard can take an hour,” Ryan said. “And you can’t just walk away — it’s a fire hazard; the printers jam. As a safety measure, you have to monitor them.”

Her staff, one working with a 3D printer at home and the other in the lab, spent several days, and managed to print some 300 ear guards. In the meantime, Andy Pargh, of The Pargh Foundation, a charitable trust, donated $5,000 to Stetson University to provide another comfort for local health care workers: food.

Very quickly, Skelton said, two events — April 23 at AdventHealth DeLand and April 24 at Halifax Health Medical Center — came together.

“We passed out 260 ear guards last week, and fed about the same amount of people,” Skelton said. “We were able to feed all three shifts at DeLand and two at Halifax. And the complete shifts, so that includes all of the janitorial staff, the admit team, everyone.”

“Andy Pargh really had a twofold objective: Yes, thank the health care heroes on the front line taking care of the community, but also to throw business to local restaurants,” Skelton said. “I love that about him.”

Zarrella’s in Cape Canaveral and Toasted in Orlando provided food for the first two events, and Pargh has committed a further $5,000 donation for a future event at AdventHealth Lake Mary, which will be catered by Brian’s Bar-B-Q in DeLand.

Feeding workers

A second batch of ear guards, hot off the printer, has been completed, Ryan said. In between all the usual university duties at the end of semester, Ryan, her staff, and her partner, physical chemistry professor Tandy Grubbs, had a “6-foot social distancing bagging party,” for the ear guards, she said.

“It’s pretty tedious,” Ryan said.

“There’s no shortage of things to do. We’re doing everything we always did, just virtually,” Ryan said about life during quarantine. “Really, this was possible because of my staff — them stepping up and doing extra.”

Skelton was similarly self-effacing.

“Andy Pargh and Sue and her crew are the real heroes,” Skelton said.

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