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Benedictine grads make free ‘ear savers’ for surgical masks

Jake Schmitz shows off his 3D printer and the design for “ear savers” — an idea he and friend Ryan Johnson came up with to protect ears from prolonged contact with surgical masks. The two entrepreneurs are making “ear savers” as fast as they can, but are having a hard time keeping up with demand.

by Joe Bollig

OVERLAND PARK — Sometimes the smallest thing can make a big difference — like a bit of plastic to make wearing a medical mask a bit easier.

Making a big difference is what Jake Schmitz and Ryan Johnson, friends and co-workers, are doing in response to the coronavirus crisis.

The two entrepreneurs — who met at Benedictine College in Atchison and work for Overland Park-based Catholic Faith Technologies — are making and donating “surgical mask tension release bands for ear comfort for extended use.”

They call them “ear savers.”

To protect themselves from the coronavirus, medical professionals and workers — and other people like paramedics — have to wear masks for long hours and many days at a stretch. The elastic bands on the masks that loop around the ears can wear, leading to some serious soreness.

So just as the demand for masks of all kinds has soared, so, too, has demand for “ear savers.” There aren’t enough to go around.

“It all started after Mass on April 5,” said Johnson, a member of Holy Cross Parish in Overland Park. “My wife and I streamed Mass with Archbishop Naumann. I hopped on Facebook for just a few minutes and saw a friend who I’d gone to college with . . . [who shared] a design for facemask tension release holders for surgical masks.”

There was such an overwhelming demand for the “ear savers” from a hospital in the friend’s community that the hospital put the plans online and made a plea for people to make them with their personal 3D printers.

“I didn’t have a 3D printer, but I knew that Jake did,” said Johnson. “So, I texted him. I sent him the plans and said, ‘Hey, this would be really cool to do together.’”

Ryan Johnson displays an “ear saver” that he made with a 3D printer.

Schmitz saw the same story. When Johnson contacted him, he liked the idea.

“I took a look at the object and said, ‘Let’s do a test run,’” said Schmitz, a member of Ascension Parish in Overland Park.

The technology involves making a three-dimensional object from a computer-aided design by adding layers of plastic.

“The way the printer does that is with a big spool of plastic filament, like a really, really big fishing line,” said Schmitz. “You hook the spool to a printer, and it feeds the wire into the printer, heats it up, and will [build] the object layer by layer . . . from a heated nozzle.”

It worked beautifully. Since 3D printers are expensive, Johnson’s parents donated some money so he could also start printing at his home. The “ear savers” that Schmitz and Johnson make come in two sizes. Because they have different kinds of printers, Johnson can produce four every 45 minutes, and Schmitz can make eight every three hours.

Schmitz and Johnson used social media to offer the free “ear savers” to local individuals, hospitals, clinics and other entities.

Johnson and Schmitz have created “ear savers” that have helped people and organizations throughout the country.

“Locally, we’ve delivered to nurses [at hospitals],” said Johnson. “There’s a local nurse at a neonatal intensive care unit who needed 25 for her floor. We have another local nurse who works on a mother and baby floor . . . who wanted 25 for her floor.

“We’ve also reached out to local hospitals and clinics. We’ve contacted fire and police departments to see if we can help. Our goal is to help as many as possible, especially locally. These are completely free of charge. We’d like to have a big impact locally and we’re trying to grow that.”

Word is spreading beyond the Greater Kansas City metropolitan area.

Schmitz and Johnson are filling an order for a hospital in Dallas. They’ve sent them to various facilities (urgent care clinics, hospitals, emergency rooms) in Iowa; a hospital emergency room in St. Louis; a children’s hospital in Tucson, Arizona; and hospitals in Denver and San Antonio. They’ve also sent them to a lab in Hiawatha.

“We’ve delivered close to 200, and have 60 or 70 we’re fulfilling for individuals,” said Johnson. “We’re thinking that number will continue to grow as more people find out about this and we make more contacts.”

The demand is always higher than what they can produce. So, the two men are casting about via social media to find other printers.

“Ear savers” have been in high demand since the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“There is a national effort around providing 3D printed materials for medical professionals, especially if they are personal protection devices,” said Schmitz.

“We have reached out to a few schools, because most in the archdiocese are closed,” he continued. “If they have a 3D printer that isn’t being utilized, my basement is ready to go.

“I’ve got a whole empty wall we can line printers up on. But the point isn’t for us to do it all. If someone has a 3D printer . . . we can handle distribution.”

Persons who want to help Schmitz and Johnson print the items — or need “ear savers” —  can contact them via email at: johnson.ryan45@gmail.com or jakeschmitz87@gmail.com.

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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  • I am a nurse in silver spring, Maryland. I would like to buy a pair of your ear savers. Please send me the information so I can order some. Thank you.

    Sandi Millison