Unprecedented adversities experienced over the past year have revealed in people true characteristics that may have surfaced for the first time.
At RMD Engineering Inc., those characteristics nearly moved Jim Boire, P.Eng., to tears.
He and a team of approximately 35 designed and built from scratch an emergency use ventilator (EUV-SK1). One Health Medical Technologies, a subsidiary of RMD, recently received approval from Health Canada for its in-house designed and manufactured ventilator.
It comes as a major assist to a healthcare industry that, at the time, was in desperate need of this particular medical device.
“It almost makes you cry when you stop to think about what everyone was willing to give to this project,” said Boire, the primary owner of the Saskatoon-based RMD Engineering.
“It was probably the best thing that could happen to a company in the middle of a pandemic and after everyone had cancelled their orders. It really was a good way to bring a team together. We had the mentality of ‘We can do this, so we have to do it’.”
The pandemic takes hold
COVID-19 was wreaking havoc in North America. People infected with the virus were filling up hospitals, businesses were being forced to close and international travel slowed significantly.
Boire received a text message in mid-March 2020 from his daughter Rebecca Erker, a nurse working in the intensive care unit at Saskatoon’s Royal University Hospital. The text explained the projected infection rate and potential shortages of equipment and staff and asked everyone to do their part to push back the curve.
So Boire and his team went to work on the design of a ventilator.
“You always begin a project with the end in mind. This was no different, except for the fact that the Friday before the work started, no one on our team knew what a ventilator was or how it operated,” he said.
Communication amongst the team was critical and likely the most important tool. Team members met twice a day for about 15 minutes each time to provide updates on progress. Because most members of the team were subject matter experts in different areas, most were machining prototypes or building test boards or programming for much of the days.
Boire said there was about a five-day stretch where they produced a new prototype each day and then had a team test it and make adjustments.
The process and the project itself were unique to RMD Engineering.
“As a custom design and build engineering company, we are able to manufacture a lot of things in house, but because of all of the material hoarding that went on in the early days of the pandemic, we had to build a lot of components ourselves,” Boire explained. “And then there was just the added stress of COVID-19 …”
RMD goes to work
Everyone was all in almost immediately. Concerns of becoming infected with the virus became secondary to the project.
“Not one person who was a part of this process ever stopped to ask what was in it for them. The world needed help. Everyone believed that it was a part of our job to help.”
“You have never seen so many people so focused.”
Saskatchewan’s charm played a role in the process as well. Examples of the tight-knit community were presented when special guests visited the team.
A respiratory therapist, who is a close friend of one of RMD’s owners, stopped by on weekends to provide assistance and to answer any questions from staff.
RMD’s engineering manager’s uncle who recently retired was the lead in all ventilator maintenance for the SHA. He also paid frequent visits to offer support and share technical knowledge.
A project manager who instructs PMP courses for the Edwards School of Business was contracted to tutor the team members. He literally camped at the RMD shop in his camping trailer. He set up inside the building to manage the COVID risks and communications of the team.
A human resources expert with 25 years experience in labour relations, who also met Boire while teaching an executive leadership program from Edwards School of Business at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), also was contracted to help monitor how stress may be affecting RMD staff and their mental health.
As the project moved forward, different people from various colleges at USask shared expertise in codes and standards, applied research and technical writing for manuals and training videos.
Collaboration was key
The overall project included several moving parts and required expansive collaboration from various disciplines, departments and organizations.
USask College of Engineering Dean Suzanne Kresta visited RMD late one night after the first prototype was ready. Minutes after meeting the team and seeing the work being done and the process being followed, Kresta phoned Preston Smith, the Dean of USask College of Medicine, to validate that what was happening was real and that it had potential.
“Imagine our excitement after we’ve created this … and then it dawns on you that you have to convince as respirologist and the head of anesthesiology for the province that in two days we figured out what a ventilator is and made something that could turn into something that could save someone’s life,” Boire said.
After initial visits from Kresta and communications with Smith, the SHA and USask College of Medicine professor Dr. Mateen Raazi, who is also the SHA head of anesthesiology, collaborated to bring in respiratory therapists and clinicians to test the machine and provide feedback.
As well, Dr. Julia Montgomery, a respiratory expert with Western College of Veterinary Medicine, assisted with writing the ventilator’s operation manual and training video. She also helped with the testing of the machine function.
USask’s College of Law professor Patricia Farnese provided support on the regulatory work on standards for medical devices related to the Health Canada submission.
USask Respiratory Research Centre members took part in writing the ventilator training manual.
Six weeks later, an application to Health Canada was submitted.
“This initiative exemplifies the spirit of collaboration and entrepreneurship we’re so proud of in our province,” said Saskatchewan Health Minister Paul Merriman in a prepared statement.
“Our government fully supports this work and we are pleased that residents in Saskatchewan and across the country will have access to this equipment if they need it.”
A finished product
RMD was required to submit its prototype for third-party testing. It was evaluated by a testing agency in the U.S.
According to Boire, during the evaluation, officials there said the quality of the device and how it ranks in the testing puts it at mainstream manufacturing quality.
To date, RMD Engineering is the only self-funded private company to make ventilators. It was the first one in Canada to get a physical device into testing.
“The SHA is grateful for the dedication and work that RMD Engineering has invested in creating a Saskatchewan-made solution to support the needs of patients for ventilator support as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” said Lori Garchinski, the SHA’s executive director of provincial programs, tertiary care.
“Enhancing our ventilator capacity allows for frontline teams to balance the needs of their patients with the appropriate available equipment.”
RMD Engineering was issued its authorization for sale by Health Canada on Nov. 25, 2020. The SHA has subsequently purchased 100 units for use in Saskatchewan.
Boire is proud of the work his team accomplished. He said it was the relationships that developed over the course of this unique process that he’ll remember most.
“This project turned everyone into a rock star,” he said. “It was a realization that I have the right team in place.”
“The only claim to fame I get out of any of this is that I built this team. The team thrived as a unit. It is the most satisfying thing to see that kind of effort, that kind of respect and implicit trust that you’re doing the right thing.”