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A mechanical ventilator is an automatic machine designed to provide all or part of the work the body must do to move gas into and out of the lungs. The act of moving air into and out of the lungs is called breathing, or, more formally, ventilation.


The simplest mechanical device we could devise to assist a person’s breathing would be a hand-driven, syringe-type pump that is fitted to the person’s mouth and nose using a mask. A variation of this is the self-inflating, elastic resuscitation bag. Both of these require one-way valve arrangements to cause air to flow from the device into the lungs when the device is compressed, and out from the lungs to the atmosphere as the device is expanded. These arrangements are not automatic, requiring an operator to supply the energy to push the gas into the lungs through the mouth and nose. Thus, such devices are not considered mechanical ventilators.


Automating the ventilator so that continual operator intervention is not needed for safe, desired operation requires three basic components:


  1. A source of input energy to drive the device;

  2. A means of converting input energy into output energy in the form of pressure and flow to regulate the timing and size of breaths; and

  3. A means of monitoring the output performance of the device and the condition of the patient.


There was a time when you could take a handful of simple tools and do routine maintenance on your car engine. About that time the average clinician could also completely disassemble and reassemble a mechanical ventilator as a training exercise or to perform repairs. In those days (the late 1970s), textbooks1 describing ventilators understandably paid much attention to the individual mechanical components and pneumatic schematics. In fact, this philosophy was reflected to some extent in previous editions of this book. Today, both cars and ventilators are incredibly complex mechanical devices controlled by multiple microprocessors running sophisticated software (Fig. 3-1). Figure 3-2 shows the pneumatic schematic of a current intensive care ventilator. All but the most rudimentary maintenance of ventilators is now the responsibility of specially trained biomedical engineers. Our approach to describing ventilator design has thus changed from a focus on individual components to a more generalized model of a ventilator as a “black box,” that is, a device for which we supply an input and expect a certain output and whose internal operations are largely unknowable, indeed, irrelevant, to most clinical operators. What follows, then, is only a brief overview of the key design features of mechanical ventilators with an emphasis on input power requirements, transfer functions (pneumatic and electronic control systems), and outputs (pressure, volume, and flow waveforms). The rest of the chapter focuses on the interactions between the operator and the ventilator (the operator interface), and between the ventilator and the patient (the patient interface).


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