Sometimes, a hobby can prove to be much more than a creative outlet. That’s the case with a Darien man, whose hobby has helped save many lives.

Since March, Yakov Gorodnitsky, along with several others, have been making face shields and donating them for protection against the coronavirus.

To date, they’ve made about 6,500 shields. The shields are made in their homes on a 3D printer.

Those interested in a donation of face shields may send an email to ppe.yakov@gmail.com.

A hobby

Since he was 14, Gorodnitsky has liked to build from scratch.

He has made wooden furniture, electronic items, and toys.

“I’ve made figures and custom sculptures for friends and family,” he said.

Three years ago, he built a large 3D printer, which he keeps in his basement.

The need

At the end of March, an emergency room nurse from Danbury Hospital reached out on a Facebook group Gorodnitsky belongs to called 3D Printing. There are more than 60,000 members of this group.

“His post was for someone to help him design a splash guard for a 3M respirator as soon as possible,” Gorodnitsky said.

“That’s what ER nurses were wearing in Danbury Hospital at the start of COVID-19. It has two filters on each side and it’s not meant to get wet. He wanted someone to design a splash guard for these filters,” he said.

Gorodnitsky, a senior software engineer and financial programmer at Interactive Brokers in Greenwich, reached out to him, offering to help.

The nurse sent him the file, Gorodnitsky made the shield on his home machine, and the nurse was pleased.

They then started chatting about the PPE situation, and the nurse told him that it was “pretty bad and no one had shields, especially not in the ER, and everyone was reusing their n95 masks. That’s why he went the 3m respirator route, because those are reusable,” Gorodnitsky said.

Those kinds of masks were not provided by the hospital. Nurses found that they offered good protection and bought them with their own money.

“It was a face mask with filters on the sides,” he said.

Normal face masks have no filters, “so if someone sneezes on you, you need to get the mask cleaned,” he said.

His original model for the shield came from a model approved by the NIH (National Institutes of Health).

In total, 30 to 50 shields were made for the Danbury ER.

Fellow programmer Steve Prior of Danbury, and George Chorny of Redding, a web systems engineer, soon came on board to help with the project.

They were able to get financial backing from Interactive Brokers.

“We reached out to our company on a Saturday. Within 10 minutes, we had the full backing of the CEO,” he said. “They sent out a company-wide email to get more people to join in the effort” for anyone who needs them.

Interactive Brokers is continuing to support the project financially with an open-ended commitment.

“In fact, their support extends beyond materials, to electrical usage and machine maintenance, as well as purchasing additional machines for Steve and George to extend our capacity,” he said.

Products

The men make two different kinds of face shields:

 A shield with a visor commonly used by healthcare professionals

 A shield without a visor, which is used by salon workers and store owners

Both kinds are resuable and washable.

They also make ear relievers.

“Normally, the masks that people wear need to go behind the ears, and wearing them for a long time can actually chafe the skin behind the ear to the point of bleeding. It gets very uncomfortable,” he said. “So the community came up with these plastic strips that have several hooks that the mask straps hook onto instead, and they are worn behind the back of the head, so the masks are not hooked on ears, but these flexible plastic strip instead.”

He is now working on a face shield design for children.

He has been making them on nights and weekends — about 100 a day.

The face shields are a team effort.

“Steve, George and myself are doing the printing and assembly,” he said.

Additionally, Rajni Chidambaram of New Canaan has been working on logistics and coordinating with different hospitals and nursing homes for donations.

“On a normal machine, we can make four open face shields in three hours and 40 minutes,” Gorodnitsky said.

Donations

Gorodnitsky and his team have donated face shields to more than 80 different places.

They have had requests from hospitals in Norwalk, Bridgeport, and White Plains, N.Y.

“It’s an on-demand process,” he said.

Initially, they would contact medical facilities and nursing homes to see if there was a need for the face shields.

They also advertised their services through social media.

“The more we posted on Facebook about what we were doing, the more people reached out to us,” he said. “I think the first 1,000 we distributed were through our contacts in the medical field.”

Since many healthcare places now have enough supplies and the state is opening up, “we got the green light from our company to help out small businesses, schools, and have donated to hairdressers and salons,” he said.

They’ve donated 30 shields to the special education department of the Norwalk School District, and 170 shields to hair salons.

They’ve given hundreds of face shields to Waveny Care Center in New Canaan and Maplewood at Darien.

They also made a 50-shield donation to the New Canaan Chamber of Commerce last week.

A recent donation of 150 shields to the Darien Chamber of Commerce went toward local businesses in town.

They’re currently preparing a 1,000-shield donation to the ER9 school district, which covers Easton and Redding.

They are now getting requests from a Facebook group called Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies.

“That is where we get information about the latest shield models and other 3D printable PPE resources,” he said.

He said he credits all the families “who have been really helpful” in ths effort.

“My wife does a lot of the deliveries, helps me put together the boxes, and assembles shields for smaller donations,” he said. “I know George’s and Steve’s wives have been doing similar work. George’s kids have done multiple evening sessions of assembling shields. Rajni’s husband has made multiple trips to Yale to deliver different items we’ve donated — I provided over 1,200 ear relievers that were delivered to Yale.”

A “no-brainer”

Gorodnitsky said he’s very fortunate to be able to use his hobby in such a positive way.

“When I found out that what I’ve been doing my entire life, making things for fun, can be used to help people, it’s not something I could just let slip by,” he said. “I spent three years building this massive machine because it was a challenge to make something that has never been made before, and now this machine is able to make things that can help people from getting sick — that’s a no-brainer. Also, the more people we help, the more stories we hear of how grateful everyone is, especially reaching out to people who are not expecting it. Helping first responders initially, and now small businesses who can’t get or afford quality PPE, it’s gratifying to just be able to do something to help get everyone through this.”

sfox@darientimes.com