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Co-Workers Get Tech Savvy to Support the Front Lines

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woman uses 3D printer to make ear guards

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Kimela Wilker, interface developer at UnityPoint Health, knew she wanted to help however possible. As the caretaker for someone vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, she also knew any help she could provide would have to be from home. 

“It’s been really important to me to feel like I’m being proactive and helpful during the pandemic,” Wilker said. “There are so many others who are putting themselves out there on the front lines both at UnityPoint Health and in the community.”

Wilker started by making handmade masks for UnityPoint Health – St. Luke’s in Cedar Rapids. When she ran out of her supply of elastic (used to secure masks behind the ears), she decided to pivot her plans and turn to a new hobby — 3D printing. 

“It’s very new for me. Shortly before the pandemic, I was looking for a creative outlet. I used to be into making pottery and clay sculptures. Unfortunately, that became impractical for me to continue, because I didn’t have a good way to store clay, nor easy access to a kiln for firing the pieces,” she said.

Instead, Wilker decided she wanted to learn more about 3D computer modeling, so she purchased a 3D printer. While tinkering with it one day, Wilker noticed a social media post from her colleague, Logan DeVries, an Epic analyst at UnityPoint Health. 


Similar to Wilker, DeVries was looking for ways to help, too. His post included a 3D model file used to create an ear guard.   

“It was about the time that UnityPoint Health mandated masks in emergency departments and other areas that I saw the first ‘ear guard’ file posted online that was being used in other organizations around the world,” he said. 

DeVries’ brother-in-law is a nurse in the emergency department and had commented on the strain the extended mask wearing was putting on his ears.

“I realized the need then and started printing them, so he could bring them to work and share. Once he had enough, I made my Facebook post, which received a lot of positive feedback and people wanting them; even better people wanting to help print them.”

People like Wilker. 

“The idea greatly appealed to me because my ears get uncomfortable quickly when I wear a mask. I know several other people who have similar problems, either because the elastic is too tight, or in other cases, too loose to hold the mask up properly,” she said. 

Wilker got the model file from DeVries and started printing 3D ear guards for her family. Soon, she started making them for neighbors and friends, too. 

“I made a large batch to send over to St. Luke’s with a neighbor, who was taking some masks to drop off.”

Wilker says she found out most of the ear guards didn’t reach the hospital, because they were given to essential workers at the grocery store before arriving at their final stop. 

“Realizing that the demand was more than I’d originally been thinking, I made another batch to send over to St. Luke’s as well as several to give to some of my co-workers. And then I printed some more to give out to other essential workers,” she said. 

Each ear guard takes about 20 minutes to print. Once the job starts, Wilker says there’s not much to it other than occasionally checking to make sure that the spool of filament (a 3D printer’s version of ink) is on track. 

“When it’s finished, it takes a couple minutes to carefully remove the guard from the print bed, clip any stray filament, and wash (using dish soap and warm water),” she said. 

To date, Wilker has printed more than 150 ear guards.

“The bright spot — as much as there can be one in a pandemic — of this has been how most people have come together (figuratively) to help each other,” she said. “To me, these people, the people who continue to work essential jobs and on the health care, front lines, and everyone who does what they can to help or to keep spirits up are the bright spot.”

DeVries echoed Wilker’s sentiment, saying, “Overall, the ‘you matter’ message can’t be spread wide enough, especially for those in our hospitals and clinics on the front lines with the COVID-19 crisis. The goal of putting that phrase on the ear guards was so these folks didn’t forget everyone staying at home, and doing their best to stay healthy, owes them a debt of gratitude.”

For anyone interested in making and donation ear guards, feel free to use the 3D model file for the UnityPoint Health branded ear guards. There are designated donation locations for all UnityPoint Health communities.