Picture of Yousuf Ahmed, Syed Anser Daud, Isra Hussein, John Kim, Maroof Khalid, Maham Khalid, Samveg Shah and Chengming Zhang

Yousuf Ahmed, Syed Anser Daud, and Isra Hussein are 3rd year medical students from the University of Toronto. 

John Kim, Maroof Khalid, Maham Khalid, and Samveg Shah are 3rd year medical students from McMaster University 

Chengming Zhang is a 4th year Pharmacy/MBA combined degree student from the University of Toronto

As students, our clinical duties came screeching to a halt when we were removed from patient-care settings and transitioned to virtual learning. Healthcare workers were racing to fight the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic on the frontlines, yet we could no longer fight alongside them.

A critical challenge facing healthcare workers has been the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), without which, their safety and ability to treat patients is threatened. Facing these realities, we were eager to support frontline healthcare workers, many of whom were our preceptors, mentors, and colleagues.

This is when we banded together as “3DPPE GTHA,” a taskforce aimed at producing 3D-printed face shields by mobilizing innovative technologies and sidelined healthcare students to address the shortage of PPE. We began by selecting an approved design, and had it tested by healthcare workers to ensure it’s safety and comfort. There were many anticipated challenges that we would have to surmount; from legal aspects, to suppliers being closed, and deliveries being delayed. We had limited access to 3D printers, and upscaling our production was a tall task. What we didn’t anticipate was the outpouring of community support that we would receive–over 100 3D printers from libraries, businesses, and individuals joined our efforts. To produce thousands of face shields, we relied on a network of volunteers who collected printed parts, sanitized printed materials, and made final deliveries to frontline healthcare workers. As the demand for our 3D-printed face shields grew, we began to intensify volunteer recruitment from various academic backgrounds, including medicine, pharmacy, business, science and law, who used their individual experiences and expertise to help us meet our common goal. At our peak we had over 200 active volunteers, contributing to every stage of our operation.

As efforts progressed, we reached several milestones, ranging from fundraising targets, media outreach, key partnerships, and most importantly, quantities of face shields delivered. However, our fervor to push this volunteer-based initiative forward came from the small moments of solidarity – a young child in Quebec contributing his 3D-printed face shields, school boards contributing their 3D printers for teachers to help print, and the letters and emails from healthcare workers sending their genuine thanks after receiving our PPE. We had people from all walks of life reaching out, getting involved, and contributing. The impact of our initiative struck a chord through the GTHA and Canada, but even more importantly struck heartstrings (chordae tendinae) within each of us.

Medical learners obtain a sense of comfort from being mentored by experienced clinicians, knowing that if we stumble, they will support and guide us. Similarly, when we have the opportunity to support them, even if it’s as simple as writing a note, we will help out and learn with eagerness. Yet, during this pandemic, we felt as if we abandoned our mentors during a very critical time. 3DPPE GTHA was a way for us to continue supporting the healthcare system while being released from clinical duties. The countless hours that we put into producing and distributing PPE did not feel like an added duty but rather a natural extension of our normal responsibilities. Put simply, we helped where the team needed us most.

Throughout this experience, we were faced with many opportunities to overcome challenges, learn, and work as a team toward a common goal. Afterall, healthcare is a team sport where every member brings a different perspective, different expertise, and different values. With a large team it is important to come to a reasonable consensus as there are many differing opinions, so we made an effort to meet often and advocate for everyone’s interests. Additionally, we were fortunate to have amazing mentors experienced in medicine and manufacturing who helped guide us in increasing the effectiveness and utility of our work. Our team also elicited feedback from our volunteers and the healthcare organizations receiving our face shields to continuously inform our quality improvement efforts in all aspects of our initiative.

While this pandemic has been an unexpected experience, it has enabled us to witness the underlying strength and resilience within our communities. 3DPPE GTHA was an endeavour that aimed to help support the call to action for PPE across the nation. We are grateful for everyone who stepped up and supported us. Although our journey comes to a pause and we now transition back to clinical care, we value this experience for helping us get a taste of leadership, and giving us value during a pandemic in which “routine” and “purpose” were concepts often lost. We may not be functioning pedal-to-the-metal, but we remain vigilant and ready to be called back into action as the pit crew for our star athletes.