For Christina Moawad, there was no question that she would do whatever she could to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Born and raised in New York City and with a majority of her immediate family serving in healthcare, she saw the need early on for new solutions, extra hands, and a quick response.

When one of her classmates shared an opportunity to participate in the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Virtual Design Challenge, Christina and her classmates jumped at the chance. After conversations with her sister, an ICU nurse in a New York City hospital, her group’s contribution to the COVID-19 response became clear: reduce the need for personal protective equipment (PPE).

Christina and five other classmates set out to tackle the global shortage of PPE. A weekend-long event, the group worked around the clock to design their solution.

“The resources they had were incredible. We would think of a problem, and when we realized we didn’t know how something would work, we could look up an expert, email them, and within an hour or two we’d have a time to talk with them,” Christina said.

Their end result was a concept called the COVI-Pod, a negative pressure system (NPS) isolation pod that creates a secure barrier between the patient and the hospital room. The COVI-Pod places the patient’s medical equipment—including IV poles, monitors, and ventilators—in a clean area outside the pod, where no PPE is required. When healthcare workers need to reposition patients or perform physical exams or emergent procedures, only then do they need to enter the COVI-Pod donning full PPE. By reducing patient contact while continuing patient care, the COVI-Pod could reduce the need for PPE by 60%.

Yet while her team’s concept developed, so did the dire situation in New York. As the city became inundated with COVID-19 cases, Christina saw her four siblings—an ICU nurse, a physician assistant, an ICU doctor, and a first year resident—fight on the front lines to help. The team set up Zoom calls with them, and were able to hear the clinical challenges they faced in real-time. But the situation hit even closer to home when Christina’s father and additional family members became infected with COVID-19. “I don’t know a single person in New York who hasn’t been affected. I would wake up every morning scared, thinking, “Who passed away today?” Christina said.

While Christina was in New York, she and her team continued to develop the COVI-Pod concept. “It was a really big team effort with all six of us working on different aspects of the project, from detailed design, CAD drawings, and contacting manufacturers,” Christina said. They pitched their concept to Carle Health physicians and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professors, soliciting advising support as they continued pursuing the project.

“This was career changing for me. I’m thankful I got to see (my family) go through it. People look up to these doctors. It helps me think how I’m going to be when I’m faced with similar  challenges,” said Christina. While her father’s condition continues to improve at home, Christina and her classmates continue to think through ways to transition the COVI-Pod concept to an everyday hospital setting, where healthcare professionals can perform low acuity tasks without having to enter the ICU room. This could lower the patient’s exposure to disease, and it can save PPE and the invaluable resource of time.

“The whole mission of our school at a time like this is so fitting. It feels like we were always preparing to one day become physician-innovators, and when we get our degree, then we will be ready. But when we heard the problem and wanted to help, we were like, “This is kind of our time,” Christina said.