Student-Led Group Helps D.C. Area Medical Workers During Crisis, One 3D-Printed Face Shield at a Time

Graduating senior Jonah Docter-Loeb was inventorying 3D-printed face shield parts on the fourth floor of the Eaton hotel in downtown D.C. Donning a tie-dye face mask and isopropanol-sprayed gloves, he counted each bag of items and recorded the data in a spreadsheet on his laptop, which was growing wet with the disinfectant alcohol.

Three times over the course of my nearly three-hour visit to the headquarters of Docter-Loeb’s organization, he and I went down to the hotel’s stylishly furnished but unlit lobby for him to collect more bags of face shields being dropped off by volunteers. 

The previous evening, I had joined Docter-Loeb and around a dozen of the organization’s members for their weekly Saturday “happy hour”—on Zoom, of course. Several adults present at the virtual event sipped beer as the volunteers jovially discussed their work 3D printing face shields. 

Docter-Loeb founded the organization, Print to Protect, in March. He “was looking for some way to help out” utilizing his privileges, he said, and recognized medical workers’ increasing need for personal protective equipment (PPE). Since its start, he said, Print to Protect has “snowballed.” 

Docter-Loeb gathering dropped off bags of face shields in front of Eaton D.C. 

Thus far, the group has donated 8,000 products to around 20 hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities in the D.C. area—including Unity Health Care, the largest federally qualified health care center in the city, which serves disadvantaged populations. 

Dr. Aviva Zyskind, a family physician at Unity, said Print to Protect “has helped to fill a void” of PPE in a health care system overwhelmed by the novel coronavirus epidemic. 

There’s a “nationwide and worldwide shortage of supplies,” explained Ishan Arvin, the director of nursing education and quality at Unity. The people working for Print to Protect are “superheroes behind the scenes,” he said.

Makers in Print to Protect’s ever-growing network of volunteers 3D print parts at home for single-use and reusable face shields—as well as other products the organization has begun to make, such as no-touch door openers and specialized valves. 

Some volunteers employ several printers and make more than a hundred face shields per week; most are 3D printing enthusiasts with one or two machines. The organization’s volunteers have collectively printed over 12,000 parts, having surpassed the goal for May of 10,000 halfway through the month.  

Once printed, the products are brought to Eaton, where they are sorted, quarantined, disinfected and assembled on a weekly schedule. Senior Margaret Tilmes, who manages health care outreach for Print to Protect, said the “intensive” disinfection process includes a bleach and detergent bath. 

The large room in which face shields are assembled at Print to Protect’s downtown D.C. headquarters. 

The gear is delivered to health care organizations by other volunteers. Tilmes said orders range in size from just ten face shields to several thousand.

“It’s been really remarkable to see how the community has come together around the Print to Protect initiative,” she said. “We owe so much of our success to the generosity and kindness of all the volunteers.”

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In mid-March, school was closing down, and many GDS students didn’t yet understand the full gravity of the growing crisis. Docter-Loeb, however, saw that some makers in the D.C. area were 3D printing PPE—but there wasn’t a unified system in place to organize or standardize their work.

“I don’t know tips and tricks with 3D printing,” he said, but “I like to think I am good at organizing people and getting the word out about something.” 

He began to build the organization, initially using a Facebook account he had previously created as a joke under the pseudonym “Jack Klein,” a GDS graduate in the class of 2019. Many of the adults who soon joined Print to Protect—assuming various roles to help Docter-Loeb lead the organization—didn’t know at first that he was a high school student.

As a young person, Docter-Loeb said, he can look at problems and come up with solutions “in a more unique way.” Other students became involved with Print to Protect, too—including Tilmes and junior Emily Scarrow, who runs communications. 

One challenge the organization has faced is the difficulty of procuring necessary materials, Docter-Loeb explained. With strained supply chains, many vital supplies became scarce and prices for some products, including 3D printing filament, skyrocketed. 

GDS has given Print to Protect many essential materials and tools, Docter-Loeb said. When he went into the high school building with Director of Student Life and Wellness Bobby Asher at the end of March, Docter-Loeb said, Asher “basically said that I could grab as much filament as I could carry.” The school also allowed Print to Protect to take multiple 3D printers, now being used to make face shields at volunteers’ homes. 

The filament supplies at Print to Protect are “running low,” Docter Loeb said. Much of the filament on these shelves is from GDS. 

“GDS has been an incredible support,” Docter-Loeb said. “It would have taken a lot longer to get to the place we are right now without GDS’ support.”

Eaton D.C., a modern boutique hotel located on K Street, contacted Docter-Loeb “out of the blue” offering to help, he said. Just a week later, Print to Protect moved its operations from his basement to a small room in the hotel. As the organization expanded, Eaton gave Print to Protect more room; it currently inhabits the entire fourth floor, once a communal workspace committed to social impact. 

Print to Protect fundraises through its GoFundMe page and accepts donations of supplies on its Zola registry, though it is not yet registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. 

The organization has been covered by several prominent media outlets, including the Associated Press and The Washington Post, and was recently featured in a brief segment on ABC’s Good Morning America. According to Docter-Loeb, the media attention “has driven fundraising significantly.”

Print to Protect has several times changed its 3D-printed face shield designs—all found online and accessible for free. Through his work on Print to Protect, Docter-Loeb said, he’s learned the value of an “open source mentality.”

Docter-Loeb said Print to Protect tries to use a “very fact-based approach” to ensure the organization isn’t “causing more harm than good.” 

“My biggest fear is not only supplying defective products,” he said, “but also undercutting the traditional manufacturers by providing our face shields for free.”

Before giving them PPE, Tilmes said, she communicates with organizations to gauge their needs and determine “how I should prioritize them and how many face shields I should give to them.”

She said she’s “gotten nothing but positive feedback” from the organizations receiving Print to Protect’s products.

Print to Protect received a request from the D.C. Fire Department for 700 of a certain type of valve used to “stabilize” patients in ambulances, Docter-Loeb said. Print to Protect was able to organize the printing of the full order “within 48 hours of receiving the call.” 

“That was just really rewarding on my side,” he said. 

Organizing Print to Protect “has given me something to do in a time when I would otherwise just be sitting at home doing nothing,” he said. “I’m not bored. I’m enjoying nearly every day of it. And I feel like I’m able to make the best of a horrible situation.”

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Ever since she discovered it in college, 3D printing has been Alex Astwood’s “passion,” she told me. A few weeks ago, she learned about Print to Protect online. 

Starting to volunteer for Print to Protect has been “easier than I ever expected,” Astwood said. The organization provided her with clear instructions and safety guidelines.

Like most of the volunteer printers, Astwood uses her own filament for the face shields—a model which Docter-Loeb said is “not sustainable.”

Astwood joined the group’s happy hour Zoom call for the first time seeking help to reduce her overly long face shield print times. Other volunteers gave her helpful advice, she said. Since then, her print times have been “way lower.”

However, Astwood—a woman of color—said she was “disappointed” by the lack of diversity in the meeting. Some of her friends have expressed interest in potentially joining Print to Protect, she said, but “it doesn’t help when you go on the happy hour and it’s just a bunch of white males.”

Volunteers discuss 3D printing on a recent Print to Protect happy hour Zoom meeting.

But rather than discouraging her, Astwood said, the community’s relative homogeneity “makes me want to be a part of the group even more” to show that “anyone can help.”

Astwood lost her job at a local comedy club due to the pandemic and now spends all day managing her 3D printer as it produces PPE for medical workers. “Sometimes I feel like I’m just in my apartment printing all the time,” she said. “But it’s just so nice to hear that what we’re doing is really making a difference.”

One place where the organization is making a difference is Unity Health Care, which has received more than 750 face shields from Print to Protect, according to Ishan Arvin, who has taken on the role of accepting donations of supplies to the health care organization during the pandemic. 

The donations from Print to Protect proved especially helpful because they arrived before a larger shipment Unity had ordered, Arvin said, saving the organization from a possible face shield shortage. And with Unity’s insufficient supply of N95 masks, wearing face shields is particularly important to protect medical workers from the deadly virus. 

Additionally, Aviva Zyskind said Print to Protect’s donations have increased morale among the health care professionals at Unity. “It’s really heartwarming to me to see the motivation and enthusiasm” of those working for Print to Protect, she said. 

To medical workers, having adequate PPE is “like going into battle with the proper equipment,” Zyskind said. “You want to have your bulletproof vest and your armor and you want to have the weapons to fight.” She added, “If you feel like you’re being protected, you’re going to do a better job in being able to fight it.”

Even with Unity’s thorough safety measures, Arvin said, some staff members have been infected with COVID-19.

Docter-Loeb said his long-term goal is to merge Print to Protect with another organization. He also hopes to add injection molding to their operation. 3D printing is only a “stopgap solution,” he said. 

He’s “starting to see manufacturers catch up” to the demand for PPE, “and that’s fantastic,” Docter-Loeb said. 

However, “if the alternative is doing nothing,” he said, “I do not want to stop printing until coronavirus is in the rear-view mirror.”

Story and photographs by Ethan Wolin ’23