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Nurse Invents Medical Device to Help Son’s Blood Transfusions

Frustrated by the quality of the dressing for her son’s blood transfusion port, nurse innovator Abi Huskins, RN, BSN, CPN, used what she had at home- Play-Doh, a cork and a spare needle- to invent a prototype of a medical device that could help her son and others with sickle cell anemia.

When Indiana University Health nurse Abi Huskins, RN, BSN, CPN, and her husband told friends and family that they were going to participate in Indiana University’s medical training and service partnership in Kenya, they said they were sure of two things: they were only staying a year and that they wouldn’t be coming home with any children.

Instead Abi and her husband Jordan, a pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children, developed an immediate connection with two twin boys, Ivan and Ian, who were just six months old and weighed only six pounds each.

“Meeting them forever changed our lives,” Abi said. “We ended up staying in Kenya for almost two years and coming home with two sons.”

At first, Abi and her husband thought the boys were severely malnourished, but even after receiving formula, the brothers still had dangerously low levels of hemoglobin. A medical screening revealed that both boys were positive for sickle cell anemia, a heartbreaking and scary discovery as most children born with sickle cell disease in sub-Saharan Africa die before their 5th birthday, and nearly 90 percent never reach adulthood.[1]

After both boys suffered strokes, Abi and her husband knew that the boys needed better care than what was available in Kenya. The couple returned home to begin several long years of monthly blood transfusions, transplants, brain surgeries and health scares. A stem cell transplant relieved Ian of his sickle cells, but Ivan continued to need chronic blood transfusions to manage his disease, even requiring a switch to a straight port needle that allowed increased flow for his blood transfusions.

One day, Abi noticed that the dressing used to secure the port needle was simply layers of gauze and tape, intended to hold the needle in place over her son’s skin. While most transfusion needles are inserted on an angle and have a transparent dressing so one can easily see redness, infection or fluid at the site, the angle of straight port needles prevents similar dressings and forces healthcare staff to improvise.

“The dressing was so starkly primitive it troubled me,” Abi said. “I kept asking the staff ‘Why has no one invented this? How did the port companies invent a port without a proper dressing?’ And the nurses said, ‘You’re right, you should invent this,’ and I was like ‘I will!’”

Frustrated yet driven by the clear need for a transparent and sturdy port dressing, Abi went home and used what she could find— Play-Doh, a cork and a spare needle—to represent the medical device she was picturing in her mind, a tent-like structure that would protect the port while providing a clear view of the site.

This makeshift prototype would ultimately lead Abi to create the Guard-A-Port, a transparent port protector designed to help sickle cell patients that need chronic transfusions for treatment, patients just like her son.

“I’ve never really considered myself an innovator. I did this because I’m passionate about my son and his small patient population,” Abi explained. “I felt a responsibility to use my nursing background to do something for patients who may not know what the standard of care should be.”

Abi wasn’t sure what to do with her solution, until her husband attended a presentation on clinician innovation by Jonathan Merrell, MD, Director of Clinical Care Innovation Accelerator at the Indiana Clinical & Translational Sciences Institute and Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine. By connecting with an expert on healthcare innovation, Abi saw an opportunity to turn her idea into an actual medical device that could improve health outcomes.

“Abi came to me with a compelling problem, and a potential solution that she had already prototyped using what she had at home,” said Jonathan. “I think that speaks volumes to the fact that innovation doesn't always require advanced degrees and expensive equipment.”

In his role as Director of Clinical Care Innovation Accelerator, Jonathan helps connect clinicians with engineers who are often well-trained in problem solving but lack the patient insights needed to solve healthcare challenges. Together Abi and Jonathan brainstormed other potential designs, but they ended up returning to the original prototype that she fashioned out of Play-Doh. Jonathan quickly helped to assemble a team of engineers and connected Abi with a patent attorney.

“I didn’t want to wait months to develop this. We needed this invention yesterday,” Abi explained. “We worked with a team of engineering students that ran with the idea and created a usable product within weeks.”

As someone who didn’t know what to do with her great idea, Abi said Dr. Merrell’s support was invaluable. “I think it’s great that nurses are inspired to innovate, but we also need to put people within reach in healthcare systems that know how to navigate the design road. It’s like a jungle gym to move ideas along, and nurses aren’t trained in it.”

To help more nurses like Abi get the support they need to develop and share their great ideas, Jonathan hopes that other health systems can better recognize the power of nurse-led innovation and invest in positions that understand the development, patent and licensing process.

“For too long, we've thought that only a person with an MD or PhD degree and a well-funded lab could innovate, but this is simply not true,” said Jonathan. “I think nurses often undervalue their perspective in the world of medical innovation, when in reality they see things with a different perspective from physicians, and that perspective can unlock important opportunities.”

Now Jonathan and Abi are working to find potential licensees to acquire the patent-pending device, which Abi sees as an inexpensive but easy solution for a niche patient population and adults who often need a transfusion with a straight needle.

“I think the best part of nurse innovation is that many people think these solutions already exist,” Abi said. “And even if the idea seems small, anything that can help even one patient is valuable and important.”

Abi and her husband are grateful that both Ivan and Ian are now sickle cell free and can spend less time in a hospital and more time enjoying life with their family, especially their new younger brother, Digory.

“I originally wanted to get this product out there for my sons to use, but now even as my sons are cured, I really want this product out there to help other patients,” Abi said. “It’s been a great honor to advocate for these patients and bring my own understanding and background to the table. I hope all nurses can feel inspired to not sit on their experiences and contribute their own valuable ideas.”

[1] BioSpace. (2019, June 17). 3 Signs of Progress Against Sickle Cell Disease. Retrieved from https://www.biospace.com/article/-3-signs-of-progress-against-sickle-cell-disease/

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