The importance of ventilator availability during the COVID-19 outbreak has been a topic of much discussion, but many people still don't know how the device is used.
Ventilators, which have been used to save lives since the first iron lung was invented in the 1920s, do exactly what their name says: ventilate. According to Northeastern Health System Director of Cardiopulmonary Russell Munson, the machine gently forces oxygen through a breathing tube in a patient's airways or lungs. This helps provide patients with the air they need and removes carbon dioxide, "a waste gas," out of the lungs, he said.
"There are a few different modes of ventilation that are used, depending on the patient's condition," said Munson. "It is important to note that ventilators are only used as life support; they do not treat or cure any medical conditions."
In severe cases of conditions like the coronavirus, a person's oxygen levels can drop, making it difficult to breathe. That's where the ventilator comes in to assist a patient who has difficulty breathing, or has even lost the ability to breathe on his own.
"Typically, a ventilator is used on a short-term basis, like for surgeries," said Munson. "A person with a serious medical condition may be placed on mechanical ventilation until recovery. Some of these conditions include respiratory infections like the flu or coronavirus; lung diseases like asthma or COPD; acute respiratory distress syndrome; damage to the nerves or muscles involved in breathing; brain injury, stroke or even drug overdose."
Munson added that ventilators require careful monitoring by doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists, and that chest X-rays and blood tests may be needed on a regular basis to ensure the patient is receiving the appropriate amount of oxygen and not retaining carbon dioxide.
While most of those who contract COVID-19 recover without needing hospital treatment, according to the World Health Organization, ventilators are crucial for serious cases. That's one reason why organizations around the world have been quick to develop new ones. In fact, engineers in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory designed a ventilator for coronavirus patients in only 37 days.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the use of NASA's new ventilator. And according to the agency, NASA plans to share its technology with the medical community to eventually reach patients suffering from the coronavirus.
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