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Protective gear was in short supply before group responded

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FARMINGTON — As the purchasing manager at San Juan Regional Medical Center, Dave Turnbull has an unenviable job these days — trying to find vendors who can keep his facility well stocked in the supplies it needs to continue operating in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially personal protective equipment for caregivers.

He offered a succinct assessment of the challenge he is facing right now.

"You can't find anything to buy," he said forlornly.

Even so, Turnbull said, he somehow has kept the hospital's supply shelves stocked.

"We still haven't run out of anything," he said on April 15.

Turnbull has managed to avoid that scenario by venturing outside his usual supply chains for some items, such as protective eyewear for caregivers treating virus patients. He said at one point he found himself seeking that gear from retailers such as Home Depot and Harbor Freight Tools. He acknowledged those alternatives weren't exactly tailor made for health-care applications, but they would do in a pinch.

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But Turnbull won't have to make do any more with less-than-ideal equipment in one very important category. About the time his facility ran out of its supply of disposable, full face shields a couple of weeks ago, two local businesses joined forces with the The Big Idea makerspace at San Juan College's Quality Center for Business to begin producing the badly needed headgear.

Since that time, those entities have manufactured approximately 150 of the face shields and are close to having another 80 of them completed. The new face shields are especially valuable, as they can be sanitized and reused, meaning the hospital won't have to continuously replenish its inventory.

"It's a huge difference," said Dr. Brad Greenberg, the medical director of emergency preparedness at the medical center. "You're not dependent on an ongoing resupply. … We've moved to a reusable PPE model in order to not be subject to fluctuations in the supply chain we can't control."

Turnbull said the new supply of face shields has given him one less major thing to worry about.

"It's been very cool," he said. "The staff (members) love it because it's easier to take care of patients."

The college has partnered with ABC Canvas and PESCO to produce the face shields for the hospital and Pinon Family Practice. The idea for the project came from Logan Byrom, a New Mexico Tech freshman majoring in engineering, and his father, PESCO business development manager John Byrom. The younger Byrom, home from college on spring break when the coronavirus shutdown started, said his father became aware of the hospital's acute need for PPE, and the two set about trying to solve that problem.

They weren't exactly starting from scratch. Logan, a Farmington High School graduate, had served as the assistant at The Big Idea when it opened in 2019, and he already was well acquainted with its 3D printing equipment and other equipment. He and his dad set about developing the hardware frames for the face shields, and they quickly were joined in their work by Cody Waldroup, owner of ABC Canvas, who provided the clear vinyl face shields and other parts of the product.

They produced a handful of prototypes and showed them to hospital officials, who recommended some minor modifications, which the Byroms and Waldroup were able to incorporate. Within a few days, they had settled on a final model and began turning out the shields.

San Juan College President Dr. Toni Hopper Pendergrass said she was thrilled to see The Big Idea playing such an important role in filling a critical need during the coronavirus crisis. The 3,000-square-foot shared work space opened in February 2019 to serve local entrepreneurs and provide them with a facility where they could design or test ideas that they could develop into new products.

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Pendergrass noted that, even before beginning his studies at NM Tech, Logan Byrom was instrumental in setting up the makerspace and soliciting funding from donors to get it equipped. She's happy to see his efforts on behalf of the facility bearing fruit so soon and hopes other local entrepreneurs follow his lead.

"I think it's a great example," she said. "It's a great opportunity to show what we are able to do in a relatively quick amount of time to meet a need."

John Byrom said his son has been able to produce prototypes of additional components the hospital needs, such as custom face shields with a more rigid shield and tubing fittings for ventilators.

"It's nice to have that design capability," he said of the way The Big Idea has allowed his son to make good use of his talent.

The elder Byrom said local manufacturers likely could have figured out another way to produce the face shields without the use of the 3D printers at the college and at PESCO, and the computer-driven cutting machines at ABC Canvas, but he said that process likely would have taken much longer.

"I don't know that we could have put them out at the volume we're doing and the consistency," he said.

Greenberg said he was impressed by the ingenuity showed by the Byroms and Waldroup.

"There's a lot of inventiveness of a lot of folks working really hard to make this happen," he said. "This isn't a large metropolis, but we've got some really talented folks here in the Four Corners."

John Byrom said he hopes his group is able to supply the hospital and Pinon Family Practice with all the face shields they need in the near future, allowing his team to begin offering the products to other health-care providers. He said any health-care facility wishing to inquire about the face shields should call PESCO at 505-327-2222.

He also said donations to help underwrite the cost of producing the shields are welcome. Anyone wishing to explore that option is encouraged to call the San Juan College Foundation at 505-566-3200.

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Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com.

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