Promising invention aims to improve breathing

No one needs to remind Kay McKenney that 13 is an unlucky number. She lives with this knowledge every day.

In her case, the number applies to her functional lung capacity, which is at 13 percent. McKenney suffers from severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—a common lung disease that makes it difficult to breathe. It’s a condition she shares with more than 12 million Americans and just as many who are undiagnosed, according to the American Lung Association.

A long-time smoker, McKenney was diagnosed in 2006, but said she has had many of the symptoms for the past 15 years. “I’ve been in the medical field for years, so you’d think I would have been smarter than to smoke,” said McKenney, a retired medical technician. However, she is the product of a generation where smoking was glamorous and cigarette warning labels were nonexistent.

McKenney uses supplemental oxygen daily, but her greater physical struggle is to adequately purge carbon dioxide from her lungs.

Approximately two years ago, she found herself in her most compromised state yet, hospitalized in critical condition with carbon dioxide levels in her blood that were more than three times the norm. “I should have been dead. They don’t know why I wasn’t,” McKenney said. While being treated, she was reacquainted with Michael Rusher, a man who was a friend and fellow musician with one of her sons while the two were teenagers.

By now, Rusher had moved from behind the drum kit to the frontline of a promising career as a respiratory therapist, a 2002 graduate of Ivy Tech Community College–Northeast’s Respiratory Therapy Program. He was also that year’s recipient of the Melvin Curtis Award for Academic Excellence, the college’s highest honor for a graduating student.

Inspired by McKenney and similar patients, Rusher awoke from a dream last March, racing downstairs to transform his kitchen table into a drafting table. He sketched a device he thought would help these individuals breathe easier. His ingenuity has become the positive pressure airway device or Rusher valve.

“My device works in two ways,” Rusher said. “Breathing into it will splint the lung’s air sacs during exhalation and keep them recruited, or open and receptive. And it will hyper inflate them, so when people take their next deep breath, it will be easier.”

Rusher has established Rusher Medical Inc. to manage the business angle, and he is working with a medical device consultancy firm to develop prototypes and formalize the paperwork to ultimately secure FDA clearance. His goal is to have the Rusher valve on the market within two years.

Beyond sharing the prototype with McKenney, he has discussed the device’s potential with other medical professionals. “I really feel he is gifted in being able to potentially bring this to the marketplace and contribute to the improvement in quality-of-life for so many people,” said Dr. Kirby Slifer, a staff intensivist at Parkview Regional Medical Center.

Respiratory Care Program Chair Jennifer Brink echoed the doctor’s sentiments and added her support. “If we can help him locally, he will have additional information once he is ready to go global,” she said, referring to her peers on Ivy Tech–Northeast’s Respiratory Care Advisory Board.

Rusher said he anticipates broad audiences to make use of the device, citing that people who are obese and those who have heart conditions are also susceptible to diminished lung capacity. “I’m confident this invention can help any kind of person with compromised lung function,” he added.

He doesn’t need a sales pitch to convince McKenney, his first official testimonial. “Either I’m using my lungs more efficiently or something because I get around better and I do more,” she said. “No, you’re not going to cure COPD, but you sure can make your life easier.”

Ivy Tech–Northeast alumnus Michael Rusher is a respiratory therapist who has invented a breathing valve that can help individuals with compromised lung function. He hopes to have the medical device on the market within two years.

Kay McKenney