By KATHY ROPP
One phone call made by Conwayite West Courtney is reminiscent of the “shot heard round the world.”
Instead of hanging out with friends or heading to the beach, the young man has used his idle time away from school to get the entire state on a mission to save lives.
“I really don’t have the personality to just sit around and wait,” said Courtney, a senior at The Citadel. “After about a week of sitting inside with the social distancing, I had to get my mind off of it and do something.”
The business administration major, who is enrolled in a class focusing on 3D printing, scanning, virtual reality and CNC drilling, teamed up with James Bezjian, one of his professors at The Citadel, to make masks for the Medical University of South Carolina, where staff feared they had only enough masks to last for about another week or two.
“So I gave him (Bezjian) a call when we started online classes…to see what we’re doing for our classes, and he was telling me about the project he was working on with MUSC. I kind of asked him how I could help, and they really needed to start producing these masks…,” Courtney said.
The Citadel has four printers capable of making the masks. The problem is it takes about five hours to make each mask so producing enough to fill the need wasn’t possible. He discussed the problem with his dad, Press Courtney, who previously served on a business board at Coastal Carolina University.
His dad then discussed the problem with his longtime friend, Will Turner, a Conway native, who lives now in Simpsonville and serves on the Coastal Carolina University Board of Trustees.
“I think this young man’s amazing,” Turner said of West Courtney.
Turner says he’s had a lifetime of friendship with the Courtney clan going all the way back to his childhood. Due to their longtime friendship, Press called Turner to see if Coastal Carolina University might help produce the masks. Turner called CCU President Dr. David DeCenzo to see what the Conway school could do to help.
“I told him what West was doing and asked him if he thought this would be something that Coastal would be interested in doing,” Turner said.
Turner put him in contact with the school’s provost, Daniel J. Ennis, who got him in contact with the school’s librarians, and a collaboration was born.
Coastal has four of the printers needed to produce the pieces needed for the masks, and, according to Turner, the printers were sitting idle.
The response came quickly.
“We were able to put everyone together that needed to be put together. West already had the program that is loaded into those printers that makes them do what you want them to do, so it just kind of took off from there,” Turner said.
Courtney got word this past Thursday that DeCenzo didn’t sit on the idea. He posed it to the state’s Commission on Higher Education, and the phone calls started rolling in to Courtney, who says they now think that every college and technical school in the state is going to join their mission.
Before the day ended, Turner said S.C. State had already contacted Courtney asking what it needed to get to work on the masks.
“I’m confident that his phone is going to be ringing off the hook for the next few days,” Turner said.
According to information provided by Coastal Carolina University, since then, the S.C. Commission for Higher Education (CHE) applied for and received funds from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to support state universities in printing the masks.
“This is a great example of how students and leaders are working together to leverage higher education’s research and development power during a crisis to change people’s lives, impact public health and help our medical professionals who are on the front line,” said Dr. Rusty Monhollon, CHE’s president and executive director. “We’re excited about expanding this project statewide by tapping into the idle printing capacity at all public institutions. DHEC is providing crucial financial support that will ensure the institutions have the material necessary to print the equipment.”
Courtney said several school systems have joined the initiative since it was first launched in the beginning of April, including Williamsburg and Berkeley County Schools.
The masks they are making uses a design that MUSC has approved, and now they’re working on a newer model that is awaiting Federal Drug Administration approval, but Courtney believes they’ll get the okay soon.
Courtney says he was introduced to the new technology in a business innovation class for business administration majors.
“The premise of the class was to give business majors all the opportunities that STEM majors have, but in a business environment to use for innovation in the business world,” Courtney said.
He became a liaison with the Army’s Airborne & Special Forces Museum at Fort Bragg where they used 3D scanning to preserve some of the Army’s artifacts.
“They asked us to come and scan some of their artifacts for their museum,” Courtney said.
But the pandemic halted all of that.
Courtney says librarians at The Citadel are “pretty well versed” in the 3D printing.
“That was good for us because the professors designing the mask didn’t have to play around to design the mask. They already had it figured out,” he said.
In addition to Bezjian, who holds a Ph.D., The Citadel team includes Daniel Hawkins, an academic technology librarian, and Sarah Imam, a medical doctor. Information provided by The Citadel says together they bring expertise in medicine, 3D printing and 3D scanning.
After speaking with Ennis, the CCU provost, Courtney’s next move was to contact Francis Marion University in Florence and then the Georgetown County School District and others as he worked to find 3D printers in the area to help mass produce the masks.
Not to overlook any lead, Courtney called Luke Rankin Jr., who is president of the University of South Carolina student body. Courtney knew Rankin because the two attended Boys State together. He learned that USC is doing something similar for Greenville and Columbia medical centers.
Some areas aren’t using the kind of masks Courtney’s group is making because they were approved by MUSC and not the FDA.
Still, Courtney said, “Whoever wants them and feels the need for them, certainly if we got the ability to help them, we will.”
The 3D printers make the masks, but they still need some assembly by the folks at MUSC. Courtney volunteered to transport the pieces needed for assembly to MUSC himself.
“This is kind of a life effort to keep MUSC supplied until they don’t need us anymore. Obviously, they’d rather have the mask they usually use, but they can’t get ahold of it, so this is kind of the second best thing,” Courtney said.
With the effort booming, he sees that it isn’t going to be feasible for him to pick up every piece and get it to Charleston, so he plans to ask people to start mailing them in.
Turner says one of the nice things about the masks that are being designed for MUSC is that are reusable with a little disinfectant.
“Big picture: I think just phone calls to the right people that wanted to get involved has allowed this to mushroom into, well, we don’t know what this is going to mushroom into,” Turner said.
But, he said, “We know it’s going to be positive. I’m just glad to have been part of it in some small way.”
He especially likes that it’s happening in Courtney’s hometown and where he (Turner) grew up and many members of his family still live.
“I think what I did was so insignificant compared to what he’s (Courtney) doing, but it worked. You know a single phone call to the right person that chose to get involved based on what we were telling them, basically, that’s all I did, but it is working.”
In the meantime, Courtney is finishing up his degree online and with Zoom classes, which is how most schools are doing it now, according to Courtney. He will graduate online May 9 and receive his diploma in the mail.
He is considering pursuing a master’s degree in business administration or looking for a job in lending.
“I don't really have a plan yet, and the whole pandemic situation is kind of making job-hunting a little harder,” he said.
Courtney completed an internship this past summer in insurance adjusting with the Farm Bureau. He does know, if possible, he’d like to stay in Conway.
He says he’s not totally technologically savvy and is leaving that to the experts at the participating schools.
He says he knows the lingo and could probably sit down and figure it out,…” but these guys are the ones that do it everyday and make the technology happen.”
“As you know, Conway seems to be kind of the center of the world, so I just started making phone calls until things started happening, and getting the right people involved just makes all the difference,” he said.
He says he’s really enjoyed getting everyone connected and seeing the difference it’s making.
Turner is giving Courtney much more credit than he’s giving himself.
“West is taking an initiative and he’s doing something that’s good for his community and state. I just think it shows tremendous leadership and initiative and work to create some good out of what some people would consider to be a very bad situation,” Turner said.