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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Respiratory Icon dies

The Bird Aviation Museum and Invention Center has announced the death of Dr. Forrest Morton Bird, perhaps one of the most important figures in the history of respiratory therapy. He was 94 years old.

Most people don't realize this, but some of the initial respiratory therapy equipment was developed in an effort to win WWI and WWII.  Dr. Bird was an innovator and inventor during WWII, and his aim was to develop equipment that would help pilots fly higher.  He understood that if they could fly higher they could more readily evade enemy planes and escape enemy fire.  

After the war he turned his efforts to helping anesthesiologist Roger Manley invent a machine that could be used to safely ventilate patients during operations.  At this time the only means of breathing for patients were rogue techniques that were relatively unsafe.  Please consider that even the AMBU-bag wasn't invented until 1953.

In 1946 the Manley Ventilator was introduced to the market, and in 1950 it was updated followed by the 1950 first prototype of the Bird Respirator with advanced positive pressure. It was later refined by Bird and renamed the Bird Mark II.

This machine essentially rendered the negative pressure ventilator, or the famous iron lung, obsolete.

The machine was neat because it allowed anesthesiologists to ventilate patients without using either manpower nor electricity.  The machine was pneumatic, meaning that the only power source needed was a 50 PSI source of air.

By the 1975 he introduced an updated version of the machine called the Bird Mark 7, a small green box that became famous to both respiratory therapists and their patients. It was used as a ventilator, but it became more commonly famous for its use as a machine that became known for delivering intermittent positive pressure breathe (IPPB).

It was very commonly used in hospitals both as a ventilator and as an IPPB  machine.  The volume ventilator ended the reign of the IPPB machine being used as a ventilator, although the 1970s gave rise to the IPPB machine being used to deliver medicine.

It was falsely believed for years that the breaths provided by the machine resulted in better distribution of medicine.  It was also falsely believed to prevent post operative atelectasis and pneumonia.

However, like most respiratory myths, the IPPB machine was later proved to do nothing more than overdistend good alveoli.

Regardless, it was a very useful invention that was put to good use during the 1940s and 1950s.  Yet even while clinical evidence suggested it outlasted its usefulness, physicians continued to order IPPB treatments well into the 2000s.

Where I work, we still have one in our storage room, although I have not had to use the machine since our hospital hired hospitalists who know that all it did was over extent good alveoli.  Our machine is now used as a coat hanger for my lab coat. When I go to work on Monday I will take a picture of it and post it here.

He later invented other machines to help both anaesthesiologists and respiratory therapists ventilate patients.  One such machine was the Baby Bird, introduced in 1970, which was a complicated ventilator that was used to breathe for infants.

When I became an RT in 1995, it was the back up ventilator at General Hospital in Muskegon and it was mainly used to scare us new RTs.  The seasoned RTs would show us it and explain to us how we had to use our watch to time breaths.  Yeah, it was not fun.  Thankfully I never had to use it.  Still, I bet it was very useful during its time: The Baby Bird is thought to have helped reduce infant mortality from 70% to 10%.

I will be publishing a history of respiratory therapy on my blog "Asthma History," and Roger Bird will play a significant role in this history.  So, we here at the RT Cave would like to bid farewell to one of the greatest minds in respiratory care. Perhaps without his innovations, we may not be where we are today as a great profession.

Further reading:
  1. The evolution of mechanical ventilation
  2. New York Times: Dr.  Forest Bird, Inventor of Medical Respirators and Ventilators, Dies at 94
  3. BBC: The flying fanatic who helped babies breathe

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