Alumna-Inspired Partnership Equips Duluth Hospitals with Face Shields, Masks

Dr. Andrea Benson ’01 shows off new face shield developed by unique business partnerships in Duluth.

When Andrea Benson, MD, ’01, shared with her husband and daughter that she and her fellow colleagues—a total of 50 people—had only three disposable hoods to care for patients with COVID-19, she lit the spark for what would be a unique call-to-action in her community. These hoods or face shields, formally known as Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs), are the best tool available to protect providers from the virus, according to Dr. Benson.

“We knew that the COVID-19 intubation team was best suited by the PAPRs during intubations, rather than N95 masks or elastomeric half masks. This is because the PAPR hoods allow us to hear each other better. This optimizes communication during our most critical processes,” Dr. Benson said. 

As an anesthesiologist of nearly 20 years, she is well-versed with operating room procedures and recognized a gold mine of opportunity—clean waste materials. “Operating room cases sometimes have extra table drapes, and they are thrown into the garbage before the patient enters the room,” Dr. Benson said. “I collected these clean table drapes, and I took them back to Frost River to make into the next generation PAPR hood.”

Frost River Trading Co. makes leather bags and is owned and operated by her husband. “The material I found was lightweight, and our cutting machine worked well with it. The following day, I trialed the hood with our PAPR blower. It worked very well, but we needed a coupling solution to facilitate a secure fit to our PAPR blowers,” she said. 

So, Dr. Benson and her husband turned to Duluth aircraft manufacturer, Cirrus Aircraft. Within a few days of visiting with the company, their sixth prototype was successful—but they needed a workforce.

“We rehired our furloughed employees, and we turned to Cirrus Aircraft again. They, in turn, recalled their furloughed employees,” Dr. Benson said. 

Frost River Trading Co. began producing the PAPR hoods for both Essentia and St. Luke’s hospitals. Cirrus Aircraft, too, worked on additional sets of PAPR, and together, they were able to multiply the number of additional PAPR units for Duluth hospitals. “Cirrus Aircraft was willing to take our safety one step further,” Dr. Benson said. “That was a moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.” 

Benson's daughter sewing masks.

In the end, the incredible partnership produced tens of thousands of shields for the Duluth physician community. Dr. Benson and her husband also branched out to develop other PPE, including face masks using packing material made of wicking and filtering textiles. 

“There is a national shortage of masks and this was the perfect match for our cutting machine at Frost River,” Dr. Benson said. “Thousands of masks are cut every single day while my husband runs a sewing workshop for local high school and college students. He was able to fill all mask orders requested by Duluth hospitals. It is especially exciting that now we have the capacity to sell to the public on our website. Our shop in Duluth’s Lincoln Park has been emptied to make room for an additional 24 sewing machines, which is allowing us to increase our manufacturing and meet the demand from greater Minnesota.” 

Dr. Benson credits her mom for instilling in her a strong work ethic and the University of Minnesota for giving her the tools she needed to step up for her community. She looks forward to continuing her passion to serve others as a new member of the Karleen Charitable Trust at the U of M and is eager to participate in the scholarship program, where she will give her time and talent directly to current medical school students.

“The Medical School is the gold standard. I could not have asked for a better education. The access to training at so many different institutions across the metro and the state made for a well-rounded program both academically and socially,” she said. “During the pandemic, I have many times remembered and referenced the lectures that Mike Osterholm gave. He was a mighty speaker with a message that rings true today.”

If you’d like to purchase PPE, visit this website.

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