By Christin Senior | July 9, 2021 8:44 pm
Third-year medical student Lily Chen

A UCF medical student who used her bioengineering training to create makeshift ventilators for COVID-19 patients and help a free clinic transition to telehealth services during the pandemic has received national recognition for her work.

Lily Chen, who is entering her third-year of medical school, said the Excellence in Public Health Service Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services she earned is an affirmation that “I’m doing something right” and an inspiration to keep finding ways to help others. “I have always wanted to give back to the community in some way shape or form,” she said.

When the pandemic struck in 2020, Chen joined the Bridge Ventilator Consortium started by the University of California-Irvine to design and build supplemental ventilators to deal with a worldwide shortage. Chen, whose undergraduate degree is in bioengineering, had held a research position at the university and joined the multinational working group that included physicians, biomedical and mechanical engineers, respiratory therapists, business consultants and manufacturers including Virgin Orbit, who was able to secure an emergency use authorization from the Food And Drug Administration in April 2020.

The team created a “bridge” ventilator, a mechanical version of human-operated bag valve masks often used in ambulances and by paramedics at the scene when patients cannot breathe. The ventilators were designed as an inexpensive, quick-to-manufacture device to supplement standard ventilators when hospitals become overwhelmed. Chen was a consultant who participated in providing and receiving real-time feedback on designs and logistics. While COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths have decreased, some hospitals worldwide are still struggling to meet the needs of all critically-ill patients.  They can also help fill the gap in underserved area with limited resources.

“These devices are meant to be accessible and reproducible in most circumstances, especially in resource limited areas,” Chen said. “They are not meant to replace ventilators, but they may help in maintaining availability of intensive care capable ventilators for the most critically ill patients and expand care capacity, especially during surges.”

Chen’s engineering background also helped her spearhead a transition to telehealth services at the Saint Thomas Aquinas Free Clinic where she has volunteered since her first year of medical school. The free clinic provides healthcare services to the underserved in Osceola County, and was forced to shut down in early 2020 because of COVID-19. Chen led the effort to set up necessary software and hardware systems so the clinic could continue to serve its patients virtually and safely.

“The shutdown impacted some of the most at risk populations among us,” Chen said. “We knew our patients heavily relied on us for their care because they cannot afford it elsewhere. However, we did not want to put them at risk of getting exposed to the virus. So, this was a great way for us to continue to serve them while keeping them safe.” 

Chen also volunteers at the KNIGHTS student-run free clinic at Orlando’s Grace Medical Home. Before joining the UCF College of Medicine, she helped provide medical care at an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico with the Flying Samaritans, a student-run non-profit organization at University of California- Irvine.

“Not only have these clinics provided a platform for me to apply everything I’ve learned, they have allowed me to make some sort of tangible impact on other people’s lives who are not as fortunate,” she said. “Every time I go to the clinic, it reminds me of why I went to school, to have a positive impact on other people’s lives.”

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