"The Technology to Save Lives, and That’s What We’re All About" Sea-Long Helmet Success Story
Updated: Jul 23
A “mom and pop” medical systems manufacturer – once manufacturing 60 to 100 helmet ventilators a week, now is seeing orders go off the charts since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The owners estimate the company now manufactures 1,000 per day, all of which go through quality checks.
Chris Austin, who leads the family-owned Sea-Long Medical Systems, Inc. in Texas, describes the journey as a “Cinderella” story. Once the shoe fit, so to speak, life as Sea-Long knew it entered a whole new realm. He and some of his leadership team shared the story with Aurika Savickaite, co-founder of the helmet-based ventilation website, www.HelmetBasedVentilation.com.
It all began a few months ago, when Wall Street Journal reporter called and asked to do a story on the company’s efforts to manufacture the noninvasive helmet ventilators.
“Within 24 hours or less – we had calls from NBC, CBS, overseas newspapers, TV stations, New York Times … I mean I could just go on and on,” Chris Austin said. “It was just so overwhelming to see that kind of response.”
Within two days, Sea-Long’s phones were ringing off the hook in the shop behind their home in Waxahachie, Texas.
“Every time you went to go take a phone call, you couldn’t even pick the phone call up without it ringing,” Austin said.
That pace continued for weeks – and it was both exciting and frustrating.
It was troubling, Austin said, because the company felt they were missing many calls and email inquiries – and it was frustrating some customers. That said, they were working at the shop for 18 to 20 hours a day, filling the thousands of orders they did get.
“It was an interesting time, but it was critical to allow us to expand and grow the way we did so fast and partially due to the caliber of people who believed in the product – but more importantly maybe, believed in the technology to save lives, and that’s what we’re all about,” Austin said.
“There was no way we could turn away anybody, “he said. “We always tried to put ourselves in their shoes – or their shoes in watching their grandmother or grandfather or son or daughter for that matter in that hospital bed.”
As word continued to spread, so did the offers to help with the cause.
Several companies – including Virgin Galactic -- contacted Sea-Long to expand to the manufacturing facility with state-of-the-art equipment to keep up with the current demand – something that would normally take years instead of a few months.
The demand brought out a vast variety of workers from miles away – including volunteers who would sleep in their vehicles to help put out the orders. Chris Austin talked about tweaks to the Sea-Long helmet to enhance the seal design, and also improvements in the training materials. The company also developed kits which contain all materials needed for hospitals to implement the helmets.
“Any great medical growth comes from situations like this,” said Dr. Laura Austin of Sea-Long, referring to the pandemic
“We knew there was a benefit and an opportunity to be using this hood for noninvasive ventilation,” Laura Austin said. “Anybody who has had any work in the medical realm could say what a benefit that is if you don’t have to intubate a patient, or trach a patient, and how much quicker they’re going to better, the amount of comorbidity is not going to be there afterwards – all (those) negative side effects.
“But you have to get doctors and hospitals on board to do the research, we can’t physically do the research, we have to have those partnerships to help take this product and then say ‘Hey, this is what is really can do,’” she said.
Research needs to continue, Dr. Laura added.
“We need multiple studies to continue to further this in order to really show this is a huge benefit, and at very low cost, very low, negative side effects afterward, and overall a much quicker healing time.”
That helps decrease the cost of care, another benefit, Dr. Laura said.
“Best evidence, best care for the patients, as low cost as possible,” she said.
The feedback from clinicians was crucial to the company’s focus – knowing they were working the greater good.
The Sea-Long team knew they were contributing to saving lives – even while fighting the red-tape bureaucracy of the hospitals to hasten implementing the technology.
“We had quite a few doctors buying (the helmets) themselves out of their own money to get the products shipped to them right away to their homes, because they couldn’t go through channels because they knew it would take weeks and weeks … and they would tell us .. if I don’t get this to them by day after tomorrow, they will be dead, I know they will be dead,” Chris Austin said.
Sea-Long decided then and there to incorporate overnight shipping to accommodate the need – even at some financial loss. Austin shared a story how they rushed a helmet out to a doctor who was in tears because she was afraid she would lose a patient. Sea-Long rushed out a helmet – and within 24 hours the doctor called, again in tears, but this time to say the patient’s condition immensely improved in just a few hours.
“At the end of the day, we can really feel good about what we were doing, because people’s lives were saved,” Dr. Laura said.
Currently, the helmets are being sold within the United States, and also outside of the US, including South America, South Africa, and Indonesia. Sea -Long has discussed ways to help manufacture helmets in other countries, as well. The simplicity and low-cost of the helmets make it an excellent option for many, Aurika added.
The benefits of noninvasive ventilation are evident in not only the benefits patients receive – but in the high risks they avoid, said Dr. Duke Eason, including pneumonia, vocal cord damage, tracheostomies -- even death from the efforts to save their life.
“(This helmet) is simple, it’s direct, it’s easy to understand the physics and physiology, and it really has made a big difference,” Eason said. “I can’t say that I’m aware of any specific bias against European-based research.”
The numbers are there to back up those challenges, he said. Despite the fact the helmet was widely used in European countries, until the media – and the pandemic – brought attention to the helmet, its benefits were almost a secret, he said.
The simple, noninvasive helmet continues to be another step in fighting COVID-19, and a real chance to avoid intubation, Savickaite said. As areas are starting to experience another wave of COVID-19, this is not the time to stand by.
“Now we know that some states are experiencing a huge rise in COVID cases – some are taking a ‘break’ – but still, all clinicians who are not having COVID patients, I think it’s a good time to learn the system,” Savickaite said. “We know, COVID patients will not disappear this year, we know there will be another flu season.
“Now it good timing, actually, to prepare for that next peak that is going to hit your country, your state, or your hospital,” Savickaite said, encouraging medical clinicians, and respiratory therapists to read all the research, and test the product while learning.
It’s the time to be proactive, all agreed, to improve the quality of the hood, and also consider the respiratory uses of the helmet post-COVID-19.