This past March, Andy Cohen was caught in one of the worst snowstorms of the year.

The Crozet, Virginia, native, who graduated in May with a mechanical engineering degree from Virginia Tech, was on his way back to Blacksburg from touring graduate schools when his flight from Charlotte to Roanoke was canceled.

He and several other strangers, all anxious to get home, decided to rent a car together — which Cohen says was mistake number one. Mistake number two was deciding to take an alternate route.  

“At first, everything was fine, the route was relatively clear. Then the snow started accumulating and accumulating and accumulating, and eventually we were driving in tracks through five inches of snow, so we decided to turn around. That was mistake number three,” Cohen said, laughing.

Ultimately, in an attempt to reverse their course, the group ended up stranded near Carroll County. After exhausting all options to free the car from the snow and deeming the conditions too dangerous to travel in, Floyd County Rescue Squad housed the five individuals overnight at their station, in addition to providing them with showers and food.

Coincidently, Cohen was a part of a biomedical design organization called Bioactivity. One of the subteams he was mainly involved in was working on a device to help emergency medical service workers lift heavy patients.

“When we got there, I said ‘Hey, wait a second, I’m working on this EMS project, maybe you’d be interested in it?’ So after making friends with the people there, I ended up talking to one of the station chiefs and she was really excited about the project,” Cohen said. “She invited us back for a demo and a month later, we went back with a fully fledged prototype and got some really great feedback.”

The device, called the Emergency Lift Assist, was designed by a Bioactivity subteam called Cascade Rapid Response. The team primarily focuses on the design and implementation of devices to assist first responders and improve patient safety. The Emergency Lift Assist operates by safely and quickly rolling a patient onto a tarp. Once strapped in, a hydraulically powered set of frames lifts the patient with just the push of a button. The device can also fold to navigate tight spaces and traverse staircases.

Although emergency medical service workers have devices to transport patients, lifting them off the ground is another challenge entirely. This device reduces the wait time to load heavy patients by not having to call for extra labor and reduces the risk of injury on emergency medical service workers transporting these patients.

According to data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Division of Safety Research,“overexertion and bodily reaction” is the most common injury emergency medical service workers face annually, typically making up between 30-40 percent of all diagnosed injuries. Within that percentage, almost 50 percent of “overexertion and bodily reaction” injuries are linked to lifting patients.

Two students are on the floor putting together a metal device in front of a dozen rescue squad members watching them.
Members of Bioactivity demonstrate how the device works in front of Floyd County Rescue Squad.

Floyd County Rescue Squad was especially grateful for the students’ interest in helping them through the implementation of this device.

“The Bioactivity team was super to work with and very intelligent and flexible, especially since they asked us for pros, cons, and suggestions,” said Ann Boyd, 1st lieutenant personnel for Floyd County Rescue Squad. “Once it is closer to completion, we agreed to have them come back to take another look at the piece. This has become a good option for EMS.”

Throughout the design process, Floyd County Rescue Squad “didn’t sugarcoat” their feedback, said Rachel Molloy, a senior from Queensbury, New York, studying mechanical engineering and a member of Bioactivity. That feedback ultimately resulted in a better product.

“They told us what they liked but they also told us what they didn’t like and gave us really helpful input,” Molloy explained.

The rescue squad also made clear their appreciation for the students working on this project in the first place.

“When we did the demo in front of Floyd Rescue Squad, one of the first things that they said when we presented our concepts was that they were so happy that we were thinking of them,” said Molloy. “The EMS market is very underrepresented and they were so excited that we weren’t just making a device for a hospital, but we were making it to make their lives easier. The focus is really on the first responders.”

That focus and ability to meet with the people whose lives could be impacted by the technology ultimately resulted in a major lesson for the budding engineers.

“One of the things that surprised us, I remember, was how little they cared about the complexity of a certain feature we were really worried about, whereas they were concerned about another feature,” Cohen said. From this experience, Cohen realized that “the biggest takeaway was how a single sit-down with your key market segment can really change the outcome of your project. It set us on a couple of new paths that we are excited to pursue this summer.”

Bioactivity’s goal is to have the device completed by the end of the year. Earlier this year, the group won $5,000 from a pitch competition held by entrepreneurship development organization The Launch Place in Danville, Virginia.

Samantha Bond, a junior from Cary, North Carolina, studying biological systems engineering, pointed out that the business is completely student-run. Although Eli Vlaisavljevich, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering, assists the team on the business side, the students' limited time and resources present major challenges in the implementation of the device.

Despite this, the team feels that this project and being on the Bioactivity team has greatly impacted their career trajectories.

“Making an impact is extremely important to me, and being in Bioactivity really gave me the ability to make an impact,” said Cohen, who will be starting his Ph.D. at Harvard University this fall. “Whether it’s through creating a new business or helping people in their daily lives, it’s something that I’ve been able to learn from this and is something that does drive me today.”

Molloy, who started at Virginia Tech as a pre-med student but quickly realized her passions lie in helping others through engineering, said the project had a similar impact on her.

“This is everything I’ve ever wanted to do with engineering. You get all aspects of it,” Molloy said. “You get the designing [and] working in a team environment. When you have this team behind you that also believes in the same end goal, we’re putting our heads together to come up with the best design. It's one of my favorite parts and what I love about engineering.”

Bond has also been greatly impacted by this project and by Bioactivity as a whole, since the organization was designed to be “real world focused.”

“One in four EMS workers will suffer a career-ending injury in the first four years on the job, so if they’re supposed to be helping us, we need to be helping them. We need them to be healthy,” Bond said. “I think it’s very cool how Bioactivity operates and it is very different from a lot of the design teams on campus, and I’ve definitely learned a lot through the process and have grown as an engineer through hands-on experience, more so than just learning in a classroom.”

Written by Stephanie Kapllani

Twelve students on the team are posing and smiling for the camera.
The members of the Bioactivity group that created the Emergency Lift Assist pose together for a group photo while holding their superlatives.
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