Burnaby prop maker offers help for frontline COVID-19 workers

"Ear Savers" are being created by 3-D printer and given out for free for health-care workers to help ease the pain of wearing face masks

Terry Chui is no stranger to the idea of inventing bits and pieces to wear.

He’s a prop and costume maker (www.panda-props.com) who does work for the cosplay world, for collectors and for the film and TV industry.

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It was a social-media post of the friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend kind that made him realize his skills could come in very handy as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a simple post:  a nurse looking for some kind of “ear-saving” device that could be worn to help prevent ear chafing from wearing a face mask for long hours.

“I thought, ‘OK, I could make those,’” said Chui, a Burnaby resident.

It’s not a new concept, he noted, but hospitals don’t tend to purchase them because they’re not seen as a mandatory part of personal protective equipment but rather as an accessory – and therefore an extra expense. And, in the usual course of things, most health-care workers don’t wear masks for hours on end so they’re not really necessary anyway.

Ear Savers
A health-care worker uses one of the Ear Savers donated through a new campaign. - contributed

These days, however, with so many health-care workers putting in long shifts in masks – in some cases even in double masks – there’s a much greater call for an ear-saving device.

“People have been making them out of paper clips, plastic bags, surgical tubing. They were trying all these make-do solutions,” Chui said.

 Such devices already existed, but Chui decided to model his own – with a bit of a twist. Instead of just a simple band to stretch across the back of the wearer’s head, he’s incorporated a number of motivational phrases. “Stay strong,” “You can do it” and “Hero at work” are among the offerings. And, because he’s a cosplay guy, he also had to throw in some fun, nerdy phrases – so you’ll find “Boldly go” for the Star Trek fans and “Expecto patronum” for the Harry Potter crowd, among others.

“I wanted to keep it positive,” he said. “I think right now we need something that’s light and fun and positive, too.”

The devices are simple and adjustable so they can be worn with any hairstyle, short or long, up or down, and they’re made of lightweight PLA (polylactic acid, a vegetable-based plastic material) that’s just over a millimetre thick.

Chui started by printing them on the 3-D printers in his own workshop, and then he put the call out among members of the 501st Legion, a Star Wars charity costuming group he’s part of.

Now there are a dozen or so printers working on the project, and volunteers were close to distributing 1,200 of the Ear Savers as of Monday, April 6. (And, yes, everyone is following strict hygiene protocols, including cleaning printers with alcohol, wearing gloves while handling them and placing the product straight into Ziploc bags once they’re completed.)

Chui has had volunteers deliver loads to hospitals across the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley, and the Ear Savers immediately became popular with health-care workers.

Ear Savers
Terry Chui's Ear Savers come with a variety of inspirational and fun sayings. - contributed

“The stories that have been coming our way are amazing,” Chui said.

He tells the story of one nurse who, at the end of a long shift, tried to go and buy groceries but found a giant lineup awaiting her. She got in her car and broke down and cried – and then she looked down at her Ear Saver, which said “Stay strong.”

“She just bawled her eyes out, and then she just sucked it up,” Chui says, adding she told them she just needed to see the words in that moment. “She said, ‘I’m gonna keep this (Ear Saver) forever.’”

The project is being conducted on a strictly non-profit basis. All the Ear Savers are being given away for free; donations are being accepted on a limited basis just to cover the cost of materials. Anything that’s left over will be donated to charity, likely to B.C. Children’s Hospital.

Chui  is even making his models available so that other folks who want to 3-D print their own to give away can do so. There are only two requirements: one, that no one charges any money for them; and two, that they check in advance with any health-care facility they want to donate to, because there may be specific protocols to follow.

Chui has been running his own printers basically 22 hours a day to keep the supplies coming.

“Today has been my fifth day staying up till about three in the morning printing this thing,” he said with a laugh.

He’ll keep the effort going as long as he can, he said, and as long as it’s required. Chui noted the B.C. government has issued calls for all kinds of products required in the COVID-19 fight, but those efforts require larger production runs than can happen with home hobbyists.

Not too far down the road, he said, the effort to create such devices will likely be taken over by larger companies that can fulfil huge orders for them.

“What we’re doing is we’re providing a stop-gap measure,” he said. “At least we can kind of fill that niche right now.”

Chui is just sorry that he can’t go see health-care workers himself to say thank-you in person for their efforts.

“I would love to meet these people and shake their hands,” he said. “I want to thank them for doing what they do. They’re doing the hard part, health-care workers; for me, this is what I can do right now.”

You can find out more about the effort by checking it out on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BCGalacticProject/


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