With a 3D printer he built last year and materials he bought with money he earned doing lawn care, Wiscasset’s Sullivan “Sully” Joyce, 14, is making healthcare workers more comfortable in their surgical masks.
Parents Sarah and Brendan Joyce and Sully’s gifted and talented teacher of three years, Rachel Sugarman, are proud but not surprised he would help during the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing his eighth grade year at Wiscasset Middle High School, like everyone else, remotely. And the mask extensions he is making are not a service project for school, just a way he could help, he said in a phone interview April 7.
“Whenever there’s a problem, I try to solve it.” For example, the bulkhead at his house always flooded. So when he was 13, he bought a pump and set it up to turn on automatically when water hits a certain level. As for the mask extensions, he said with a lot of healthcare workers now wearing surgical masks during the pandemic, they are getting sores behind their ears.
He went with polylactic acid for the extensions. It’s a thin enough plastic to be flexible, he explained.
Sugarman said Sully constantly tries to help people, especially with technology. In a service project this school year, he has helped staff with their technology needs, from printer problems to helping instruct students on platforms such as iMovie. “He just, he lives for technology and he also just has a very good heart. He always wants to help people.”
“He’s always been a very conscientious kid and wants to always do the right thing,” said Brendan, a lieutenant/paramedic of EMS Operations for the city of Portland. “He thinks it’s very important for everyone to get involved any way they can to get us through this situation. So he found a way that he can make a difference.”
The extensions his son is making aren’t for the kind of mask Brendan wears on the job; those loop around the head. Sully’s extensions are more for hospital workers, he said. Brendan gave Dr. Kate Zimmerman of Maine Medical Center in Portland one. She tested it April 8 and found it fits very well and is comfortable, secure, lightweight and easy to clean.
“There are multiple cross pieces that allow you to adjust how tightly you want to make the mask fit, helping maintain a seal and preventing it from slipping. This is key as once the mask is on, you do not want to be touching it to readjust as you can cross-contaminate yourself. It sits on top of my ponytail/bun and feels secure ... I am absolutely going to use it,” Zimmerman responded to text questions. “I had seen these on social media on some private physician groups that I belong to and was hopeful to be able to find one. Wearing a mask for eight-plus hours can be very uncomfortable, in many ways; having straps dig into your ears is one of them.”
The fact an eighth grader made it shows “anyone can contribute to their community,” Zimmerman said. “Our children want to help and we need to support them in finding (how) they can.”
Besides Zimmerman, Brendan planned to give extensions to more doctors and nurses he knows from work.
Sarah, a microbiologist at Kennebec River Biosciences in Richmond, said her son built the 3D printer at a summer camp last year. And when she and several friends read about mask extensions online recently, he said he would give it a shot, she said. “Whenever he can engineer or provide something ... helpful to others, he jumps at the opportunity.”
“It makes me feel proud that he takes the initiative to be able to help at a time when people feel helpless,” she said.
The teen said he wants to be an electrical engineer, solving problems in ways that prevent their return. His mother noted Sugarman has given him much support and encouragement to use his creative mind.