Medical professionals in eight U.S. states and Washington, DC are better protected from COVID-19 thanks to some ingenuity, drive, and cui servire spirit from Groton’s theater department.
Brandt Belknap, Groton theater’s technical director, was texting with a friend in San Francisco about her work with COVID-19 patients when her comment triggered an idea. Brandt had been pondering whether school equipment and his know-how might help with the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
When his friend, a nurse, told Brandt that face shields allow her to wear the scarce N95 masks for an entire shift, he thought, "This is really significant. It’s a multiplier. This face shield multiplies the effect of one mask.”
Before long, Brandt and his wife, Theater Program Director Laurie Sales, had turned their dining room into a face shield factory. They brought in two 3D printers from the Schoolhouse Fab Lab and Brandt, along with Groton Assistant Technical Director Catrin Evans, began a mission to build protective shields that medical personnel would want to wear.
The shields have three components: 3D-printed headgear, a clear face shield, and a brow cover. Brandt handled the 3D printing, applying skills he developed as a project manager for Cirque de Soleil, in his work at Groton, and during a lifetime of tinkering. Catrin focused on the shield and brow cover, and on coordinating donated materials. "Catrin has been a key collaborator," Brandt said. "She was my technical sounding board."
Laurie meanwhile publicized the need for supplies and collected them, and helped find facilities in need of the equipment. Several community members pitched in, including history teacher Stacey Spring, who helped with face shields and brow covers, and Dr. Jocelyn Sicat P'17, '22, who identified several shield recipients. Brandt also points to support from Groton Science Department Head Stephen Belsky and Fab Lab Director and teacher Bert Hall, who supported moving two Prusa i3 MK3 printers from the Schoolhouse to Brandt's home. "Groton School's trust in its people to do what they do best has always been important to my experience here, now more than ever," Brandt said.
Before production could start, Brandt needed to choose the headgear’s design. The team researched designs and tried about ten of them, assessing the best elements of each. “Then we did a remix,” Brandt said. “We took elements from three designs and came up with something we were happy with.”
Comfort was key. Brandt compared some shields to chemistry goggles: fine during a five-minute experiment, “but if you had to do a whole eight-hour school day in them, no way.” The design required elastic, but mask-making worldwide had depleted supplies. The next best thing: rubber bands. “We ordered a lot of different-sized rubber bands from our industrial supplier,” Brandt said, settling on a non-latex, seven-inch band. “Our goal was to have it be comfortable and functional.”
At first, the process was excruciatingly slow. It took ninety minutes to print one headgear. So Brandt adjusted the printer’s nozzle—“the bigger the nozzle the faster you can lay out material”—and cut the printing time by more than two-thirds. Now the printers are humming along eighteen to twenty hours a day. About every half hour the machine beeps and Brandt removes the item and resets the printer. “At night I have figured out a way for one machine to print a stack of ten,” he said. Overall, they are producing four to six headgears an hour, to which they attach the plastic protectors.
To source material for that transparent piece, which covers the face and N95 mask, they reached out to the community. “The face shield material needed to be clear and alcohol cleanable,” said Brandt. “Old-school transparencies turned out to be perfect.” Faculty and staff dug through desks and storage areas. Transparencies and Mylar sheets came from English, history, science, and math teachers; faculty spouses; families in the Town of Groton; and others. The Office of Alumni Affairs and Development found a box of transparencies from years ago when it used a machine to bind booklets. The Art Department served up plastic film and other supplies. Just recently, Brandt has been able to order polyester film, the preferred material, which had been out of stock due to increased demand.
When shields finally were ready for distribution, Laurie helped get the word out. With PPEs so scarce, organizations started lining up. So far, about 750 shields have been shipped to Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, Indiana, and Washington, DC. Most went to hospitals—including eighty to St. Barnabas in the Bronx, where Moira Sinnott '00 is working
—but they also went to smaller health facilities, a police department, a search and rescue crew, and the Maryland National Guard. Laurie and Brandt’s sons, six-year-old Sam and four-year-old Tobias, made thank-you signs to accompany the shipments.
“Right now the demand hasn’t stopped. We’re just going to keep making them while people want them,” Brandt said, adding. “I won’t be sad when we don’t have to make them.”
Brandt, Laurie, and Catrin sometimes step back and marvel that their handicrafts may be saving lives. “When things get stressful in theater, we often joke, ‘we’re not saving lives here,’” said Brandt. “But now we’ve been saying that it’s completely bizarre and ridiculous that we’re relevant. So many more people are requesting shields than we could possibly provide.
"I’m looking forward to when we’re not relevant.”