Ryan Zamudio’s job shouldn’t be this hard. Zamudio used to repair medical equipment in the military. Now, he’s on contract repairing ventilators for hospitals preparing for COVID-19 patients.
But instead of being able to devote his time to fixing machines that could help patients, he has to struggle with the companies that make the devices. Sometimes he’ll call a manufacturer to ask for parts or a manual, only to be met with reluctance or even refusal.
“If we don't have the material, of course, we can't do the work,” says Zamudio. “There's no guesswork in this. We're dealing with lives here.”
Ventilator manufacturers argue that third-party repairs aren’t as safe as their own. But in 2018, the FDA released a report saying that’s not necessarily true. But because of some manufacturers’ hesitance to help during the pandemic, technicians are left having to search for manuals on their own. Right now, the world’s most comprehensive source for manuals is probably iFixit.com.
This might seem odd, as most people think of the site as a place to help them fix stuff like iPhones and blenders.
But it actually makes sense. For decades, it’s gotten harder to fix just about any kind of device, from televisions to tractors to ventilators. Companies tend to have the same arguments as medical device manufacturers for not making repair information and parts available to the public. Apple, for example, has suggested that people might hurt themselves if they try to fix their own iPhones. John Deere, a tractor manufacturer, has also cited safety concerns (as well as intellectual property concerns).
And Kyle Wiens, the CEO, and co-founder of iFixit, says it’s all connected.
“The biomedical technicians I know have been telling me for years that they have the same problem with medical equipment that we've had with Apple,” he says.
Since the pandemic has begun, some manufacturers have voluntarily released information on their own machines. But others haven’t. Wiens says he's trying to help a local hospital find a service manual for the Puritan Bennett 980 ventilator, which manufacturer Medtronic hasn't released.
VICE News asked Medtronic if they had plans to release that service manual. The company did not answer this question directly. But in a statement emailed to VICE News, Medtronic said, “Of all the issues at play in the current ventilator situation, service and access to service manuals is not one of them” and added that the company “provides service manuals to hospital biomeds to help them with basic troubleshooting and testing when requested.” Medtronic also sent us a list of talking points provided by their trade organization, AdvaMed.
As state and federal officials continue to weigh the risks and benefits of reopening parts of the country, hospitals will continue to need to repair and maintain medical equipment in case of outbreaks. VICE News spoke to the people who are fighting to keep these machines online, even if it means using unauthorized sources of information.
Cover: JACK GUEZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES