#AdAstraStrong Star Stories: Hess Services, Inc.

“Ad astra per aspera” is the state motto of Kansas, which translates to “to the stars through difficulties” – a sentiment that has never felt more true than it does today. It emphasizes our values and optimism that, even when faced with the most difficult hardships, we come together as a state and keep our sights set on what’s important. We launched our #AdAstraStrong campaign to highlight “stars” throughout Kansas who are going above and beyond to give back to their community and provide hope during these challenging times. Stay tuned for more star stories and stay #AdAstraStrong.

If you know a Kansas “star” who is shining bright and helping other during the COVID-19 outbreak, nominate them on Facebook by sharing a brief description of their story with the #AdAstraStrong hashtag or email us at social@bcbsks.com. We can’t wait to tell more stories about the inspiring people who are embodying the strength and resiliency of Kansas right now.

Our second star, Hess Services, Inc., is a privately owned company located in Hays, Kansas, that employs more than 300 full-time employees. Owned by Dan and Lisa Hess, the company specializes in manufacturing pressurized surface production, separation and storage equipment for oil, gas and related industries. Following the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the company’s leadership learned of the healthcare needs throughout Kansas and started discussing how they could turn their manufacturing facility into a potential life-saving operation by producing a new prototype of the iron lung.

What is an iron lung and how does it work?

Simply put, an iron lung is a ventilator. In the past, the iron lung was known for treating patients with polio during the outbreak in the 1950s. Today, the iron lung is not widely used and, in most cases, has been replaced in modern medicine by the ventilator that has been commonly used to treat COVID-19 patients.

The iron lung is a 1,200-pound chamber that is big enough in length and circumference to fit an adult inside. Iron lungs use negative pressure to help expand the lungs and force exhalation. Unlike modern ventilators that are positive-pressure machines pushing oxygen into the lungs via intubation, the iron lung does not require sedation or intubation, making it far less invasive. The Hess Services’ iron lung can be controlled from a touch screen on the outside of the device. From there, healthcare workers can easily control and monitor patients’ respirations. Not intubating or sedating patients would lessen healthcare workers’ exposure to COVID-19 because they will be less exposed to bodily fluids.

Tell us how you came up with the idea to create a modern iron lung to treat COVID-19 patients?

On the afternoon of March 20, members of the management team at Hess Services were on a conference call listening to Sen. Pat Roberts and Sen. Jerry Moran brief Kansas companies on the current actions related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The potential shortage of supplies and equipment for Kansas hospitals was a large part of that discussion. They said there was a shortage of ventilators, and the team got together to think about what we could do to help. Mark and Dan Hess began discussing the old iron lung machines and decided to see if creating a new machine was a realistic option for treating COVID-19 patients.

What were the first steps your team took to explore the feasibility of using the iron lung machines to treat patients today?

First, Dan and Mark Hess consulted their sister, Dr. Katrina Hess, to discuss the viability of this idea as a solution for the ventilator supply shortage across Kansas. Shortly thereafter, a few robotics managers took a trip to the Barton County Historical Society Museum in Great Bend, Kansas, to inspect the old iron lung device on exhibit. After inspecting the device, the team got to work creating its own modern prototype.

What was the process like to create the new iron lung?

After taking the trip to view the iron lung, a team of engineers and robotics managers began working on models and design calculations for a new iron lung machine. After that, more members of the team got involved to help mold various parts of the design. Procuring the correct parts and supplies needed to create the iron lung was an undertaking of its own. Many team members worked tirelessly to procure available supplies and have them delivered as quickly as possible.

By Friday, April 3, the prototype unit was assembled, and Jordan Huwa, master electrician and co-owner of Primary Electric in Hays, was on site to begin the electrical installation. With guidance from Dr. Hess, Jordan programmed the prototype with correct operating ranges that could be controlled easily via a touchscreen on the outside of the iron lung.

What’s the next step to getting the iron lungs approved and distributed to hospitals around Kansas?

We have been working with Congressman Roger Marshall, Sen. Moran’s office and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to navigate the process of securing FDA approval for Emergency-Use Authorization to allow the device’s use for medical treatment. Once we have FDA approval, we could bring back 40 to 50 employees to start mass production. We would start by creating 20 iron lungs per week, eventually ramping up to 100 units per week. We also have the capacity to utilize our fleet of 27 over-the-road trucks to deliver the iron lungs across the state of Kansas to hospitals in need.

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