Abby Winterberg Hess ’05, a nurse practitioner and clinical researcher in the department of anesthesiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, was one of three winners of the first Johnson & Johnson Nurses Innovate QuickFire Challenge.
Johnson & Johnson invited nurses across the U.S. to submit their ideas for medical devices, health technologies, protocols and treatment approaches. Winners received 50,000 total in grants, mentoring from experts at Johnson & Johnson and access to the Johnson & Johnson Innovation, JLABS, and their ecosystem of healthcare start-ups.
The award-winning device Hess submitted to the challenge is an innovation designed to make surgery less stressful for kids.
“Studies have demonstrated that kids who are highly anxious and upset as they’re given anesthesia are more likely to have negative outcomes after surgery, including higher reports of postoperative pain and negative behavioral changes after returning home,” Hess says.
In the beginning, she created a DIY prototype that used an app from the iPhone store that used breathing as a controller, then connected the app to an anesthesia mask using a standard microphone connector.
“This initial prototype allowed me to demonstrate the concept to others and to let kids try out the idea without actually receiving anesthesia,” Hess says. “When kids tried it, I saw that the app instantly transformed a scary anesthesia mask into a fun game controller.”
After working two years with a team of designers, computer programmers and engineers in the innovation ventures department of Cincinnati Children’s, they developed a functional prototype that could be tested with anesthesia equipment in the operating room.
“I remember one of our first patients who used the product was initially so scared to have surgery and fall asleep with anesthesia,” Hess explains. “After she played the game preoperatively, she said she felt much calmer. She came back into the operating room holding the mask on her face and told us, ‘I’m ready to play!’ This was a sight I’d never seen with an anxious child in the operating room. Seeing young patients go from highly anxious to holding the mask themselves while falling asleep is the greatest reward from this work.”
After the initial success, they realized that additional funds were needed to bridge the gap between the prototype phase and commercialization.
“My hospital’s innovation ventures team encouraged me to apply for the Johnson & Johnson award,” Hess continues. “I wrote the grant and developed a product video in collaboration with the innovation ventures and marketing departments.”
Clinical research and innovation have been a passion for Hess. When she graduated from her doctoral program at the University of Cincinnati in 2015, she was a full-time clinician. She was awarded a grant to validate the clinical tool developed during her doctoral studies, but she didn’t have dedicated time to complete the project. She worked with senior leadership in her department to develop a new hybrid role as a nurse practitioner and clinician-researcher.
“Since 2015, I’ve been awarded eight research/innovation grants,” Hess says. “Going forward, I’ll spend about half of my time seeing patients and the other half working in research and innovation. I love this role, because I’m able to identify a clinical issue, develop creative solutions to improve the problem, test the solution, and (hopefully) see it make a positive impact for patients and families. Working at the intersection of clinical practice, research and innovation is a lot of work, but it’s the most exciting work I could imagine.”
The device is patent pending, and Hess and her lead designer, Blake Lane, Ph.D., are the inventors. She is also working with the hospital’s department of pulmonology to further develop and test the device for other applications.
Hess credits her experiences at Centre for providing the foundation for her current work.
“As an undergrad, I majored in psychobiology [now called behavioral neuroscience] and completed a research internship, both of which provided foundational skills for this innovation project,” Hess explains.
“The project has required learning new skills across many disciplines in order to lead teams of designers, engineers and computer programmers. This can seem intimidating when it’s not your background, but the liberal arts education provides a wide knowledge base and many leadership opportunities that help prepare you to dive into any topic, collaborate with others and be successful.
“I’ve also had the exciting opportunity to work with teams from other countries and present internationally,” Hess continues. “The many opportunities for leadership, studying abroad, internships and the tremendous commitment of Centre faculty and staff to educating students is a unique combination. I’ve highly valued all of the skills and experiences from Centre as I have progressed in my graduate studies and career.”
She and her husband, Bryan Hess ’04, live in Cincinnati.
by Cindy Long
July 23, 2019