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When the COVID-19 pandemic began, second-year Physician Assistant Studies student Alec Fields, a veteran and former fleet Marine force hospital corpsman, began to use his 3D printer to create much-needed brackets for personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care providers in eastern North Carolina. Fields’ mother-in-law, who works at CarolinaEast Medical Center, told him the brackets might be helpful to keep masks off of the wearer’s ears in order to reduce skin irritation.

Alec Fields
Alec Fields

Fields, who returned home to be with his family in New Bern, wanted to contribute to the response, especially since the pandemic disrupted his clinical rotation schedule.

Before pursing PA school, Fields owned his own business which built or designed out-of-production or unique items or parts, so Fields decided to pursue making the brackets.

“I love getting to use my old skills and equipment to help people who are putting themselves at risk to ensure society keeps as normal as can be,” Fields said.

So far, Fields has produced more than 100 brackets for the hospital as well as for fire and rescue teams in Havelock, North Carolina. Fields is using an open-source design and is customizing the brackets to fit masks that health care providers use. He said it can take anywhere from 70 to 90 minutes to print about half a dozen brackets, depending on their size.

“I plan to keep making them as long as they are still being used,” Fields said. “The material is becoming harder to order due to demand, but it isn’t impossible to find.”

Fields said he has heard that providers have appreciated the brackets, especially since they prevent skin irritation.

“I know sometimes simple things can make doing your job much easier, so I hope this is taking something off of their list of things to worry about,” Fields said.

As a veteran, Fields said it’s difficult for him to not take action, especially given his desire to put others’ wellbeing before his own.

“This way, I am helping keep my family safe and getting to take advantage of the most time I will ever have at home with my kids,” Fields said. “That thought makes it easier to stay home and help out in any way that I can.”

Paul Chelminski, the program’s director, said PA education is an opportunity for students to translate altruism into deeds.

“It is inspiring to see that this motivation is not extinguished by an interruption of education,” Chelminski said.

The Physician Assistant Studies program is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. Chelminski, MD, MPH, FACP, has led the program since its inception in 2015.