Physicians need training to administer ECMO, a medical procedure that’s been credited with helping critically ill COVID-19 patients stave off death.

Working out of his DeForest home, local resident Erick Przybylski created a simulator that allows them to practice until they have it down pat.

“A lot of patients on ECMO have ended up with a great recovery, or it’s allowed for recovery until the patient gets a lung transplant,” said Przybylski.

Przybylski’s company, Simul8 LLC, was a top winner in the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.’s recent We’re All Innovating contest in the category of “Technology Innovation to Address COVID-19 Impacts on Health” for companies with less than five employees. Another grant came his way the week before he received news of the All Innovating Contest win.

“I just came up with a neat design,” said Przybylski.

Przybylski’s work history includes stints as a paramedic and a flight paramedic. Now, he works in the Clinical Simulation Program at UW Health as a simulation educator. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation supports his patent for the device. He said WARF supports a lot of innovation.

Meeting with the cardiothoracic physicians there, Przybylski was introduced to ECMO, which stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. It’s a technique where blood is pumped outside of a patient’s body to heart-lung machine. Oxygen-filled blood is returned to body tissues and carbon dioxide is removed.

Przybylski said the external lung allows patients’ lungs to heal.

Part of the process involves inserting large catheters, with physicians being able to choose from the two biggest blood vessels in the body. Przybylski learned from working with faculty and watching how the procedure is done. His simulator is becoming a prized teaching tool.

“The simulator is set up on a table top in the classroom, and it allows them to go through the procedure until they feel comfortable,” said Przybylski.

Those training on the device work alongside an instructor. It’s similar to a flight simulator, and it’s a low-cost program, as simulators go. Where some might cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000, Przybylski’s invention trains for “pennies on the dollar,” according to Przybylski.

Schooling in mechanical design helped Przybylski realize his vision. So did his paramedic work.

In the spring of 2019, Przybylski came up with his first prototype for the simulator. It was then rolled out through UW Health to emergency and ICU physicians for training. Przybylski was amazed at how quickly it all came together, as good outcomes were observed almost immediately.

Then, along came the COVID-19 pandemic. ECMO and the simulator were soon generating good outcomes with patients. Unfortunately, not every hospital in Wisconsin is certified for ECMO, as there are currently two accredited centers in the state. Przybylski said UW Health is currently a Gold Level Center of Excellence through the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO), and the hope would be to provide this simulator to over 930 ECMO centers throughout the world.

This device was also utilized to train the UW Medflight crews on the loading, unloading and management of the equipment required for this specialized procedure, and Medflight is now one of the few transport teams in the nation to be flying out with cardiothoracic surgeons to perform this procedure at outlying hospitals.

Looking ahead, as a result of the success of the ECMO simulator, Przybylski is thinking about making other kinds of simulators for different types of procedures. He’s considering branching out to make technology to assist in training for microsurgery or endocrinology, to name a couple of areas.

He said the business could turn into a brick-and-mortar company down the road. No matter what, he wants it to stay in DeForest.

Przybylski grew up in Stevens Point and he said he and his wife have moved around a bit, but they like the DeForest area. Both work at UW Health, where his wife is a respirator therapist. He said she sees a lot of patients who end up needing ECMO.

As for Przybylski’s invention, the WEDC offered a glowing review when announcing Simul8’s win in the We’re All Innovating contest.

Here’s what was written: “One of the most devastating effects of COVID-19 is respiratory and pulmonary system failure, in which patients are deprived of life-giving oxygen. Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation, or ECMO, is an existing but complicated process that can take over heart and lung functions for critically ill patients. However, there is no commercially available training system for physicians. Much like flight simulators help to train pilots before they take to the air, Simul8 LLC’s training system can instruct doctors before they work with live patients. The ECMO procedure involves placing larger catheters into the body, removing blood to be cleansed of carbon dioxide, and recirculating it with necessary oxygen. The Simul8 system, which is being developed at UW Health in partnership with Dane County Emergency Medical Services, will allow more physicians to be credentialed. In the process, perhaps more lives to be saved. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, the University of Iowa and others are also involved in advancing the Simul8 model.”

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