It was a video of a nurse on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic that first inspired Pratheek Kuimanda, a junior at Andover High School, to take action. He remembers the woman was crying as she explained her decision to leave her job because of the critical shortage of protective equipment at the hospital.
“Being dedicated to medicine but not about to work from lack of equipment. . . isn’t something you should have to do,” Kuimanda said.
After seeking advice from local town and school officials about ways to help, Kuimanda and six friends in Andover began 3D-printing face shields for local health care workers caring for the sick, he said. So far, the group has made about 200 shields, which will be distributed to workers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Lawrence General Hospital.
The team, led by Kuimanda, includes senior Nathan Confronti, sophomores Davis Blanch, Shashwat Ghevde, and Steven Zhang, along with freshmen Duncan McBrien and Rishi Gujjar.
According to Kuimanda, the shield-making project was made possible by a $500 grant from the Service Club of Andover, a philanthropic organization with a mission to support the youth of the local community.
Brad Heim, a representative from the Service Club, said the organization supports Andover High School with important projects outside of the school’s budget, and supports people with developmental disabilities.
The grant was initially meant to help Kuimanda and others attend a conference. When the event was canceled to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Kuimanda suggested using the money to buy the plastic sheets, hairbands, and filaments needed to print the shields.
"For being young and in high school, it's amazing how intelligent and energetic they are," Heim said of the team. "We were just so impressed with them."
According to Ghevde, the group began coming up with a plan to help health care workers in mid-March. By April, they were already printing their first masks.
Kuimanda said the group got the design from a Czech 3D-printing company, Prusa3D, that released an open-sourced plan for creating the shields. They began with two printers obtained from the school, and another small-scale printer that belonged to one of the team members.
Production was slow at first, with each shield taking between four and five hours to complete. Before long, however, a few families in the neighborhood, including one with an industrial-sized printer, began to help out.
"That helped us scale up our efficiency pretty well," Kuimanda said.
The team is now hoping to continue financing their operation by selling T-shirts to their fellow Andover High School classmates that bear the words “PPE for Health Care." At $25 a piece, the price of the shirts is enough to make between 10 and 12 shields, Kuimanda said.
Most of the students first met as members of the science team, according to McBrien. They share a drive to lend a helping hand to local doctors and nurses.
“This was my way of helping to provide care for the people,” McBrien said.
Blanch and Ghevde, like Kuimanda, cited accounts of health care workers struggling to find protective gear on television news as their main source of motivation.
“It was really devastating to see,” Ghevde said, talking about the news reports.
Blanch said his brother is among those helping patients at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It’s a good feeling to know I can help others if they’re in need,” he said.
Kuimanda says he hopes to pursue a career in medicine one day, much like his grandmother, who worked as a physician. It was partly due to her influence that Kuimanda was determined to help out.
"If my grandmother was in the field and she didn't have equipment, I would do anything to help her out," he said.
In a letter released over the weekend, the team said they hope to make at least 400 shields.
"It would be cool to see a thousand," Kuimanda said. "We'll see."
Kuimanda said he is grateful to many at his school, and especially appreciative of the help from his parents.
“Being able to play a small part in a much bigger scheme is very fulfilling,” he said.
Abigail Feldman can be reached at email@example.com.