Like many other countries, Canada faced the onslaught of COVID-19 with very little preparation. Hospitals had to deal with challenges never before experienced. Here is our story of how we contributed to help fight the first wave of the pandemic in Canada.
As the world watched in horror at the rapidly evolving situation of the novel coronavirus in February/March 2020, hospitals in Toronto were bracing for the possibility of similar scenes of mass confusion, overflowing hospitals and dying citizens. Behind this were other important concerns, such as Canada’s inability to secure “personal protective equipment” (PPE) for frontline workers. On March 29, 2020, Dr. Luke Devine (Lead of Division of General Internal Medicine and ER physician at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Toronto) sent out an urgent message to the Dean of Engineering, Prof. Chris Yip, with a SOS call for help. The problem was this: The best way to monitor the condition of COVID patients was to check their blood oxygen levels. A sudden drop would mean that the patient requires immediate intervention, including use of ventilators. However, to check these levels, they would have to enter the patients’ rooms, therefore requiring a change of PPE which was scarce at that time. My team was the only engineering team at the University of Toronto to answer their call for help. In just two days, working day and night, my students and I were able to prototype a system whereby a fingertip pulse oximetry unit was connected to Raspberry Pi boards, which then wirelessly transmitted the data to a central server so that any nurse or doctor could monitor vital stats (heart rate, blood oxygen level) through a web browser without patient contact. This task was not trivial. The hardest part was to reverse engineer the various types of pulse oximeters. Some units were off-the-shelf devices that could be purchased from a pharmacy. Others costed thousands of dollars from manufacturers like Massimo and Welch Allyn. In all of the cases, there was no guidance (or instruction) on how to tap into the raw measured signal. My students worked diligently in light of this urgency to reverse engineer the units to access the raw data stream. Our system worked, and was placed under trial at Mt. Sinai Hospital. The University Health Network of hospitals was also ready to employ the system if needed. I do not think it to be an exaggeration that our system had the potential of impacting a large percentage of the Canadian population due to the size of the greater Toronto area. Only an abating first wave meant that there was no need to further use the system. However, make no mistake — our system was ready and fully operational had the need arose.
Our work was covered extensively in the news. Google "willy wong covid-19" for links.
Bill Shi, Yan Li, Brian Wang and myself. Video This is a video describing the work we did.
This is a video describing the work we did.