A Mask Invented to Protect Eyes Now Also Protects Lives
On a damp, drizzly day in April, Peter Arsenault, D94, and his twin sons stuffed the family SUV with cartons and drove down to Boston. The contents of those cartons—20,000 medical-grade masks—were a scarce commodity in the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis in Massachusetts. It was also the entire inventory for Arsenault and his partners’ recently launched business venture, and they were giving it away for free.
Before becoming a dentist, Arsenault, a professor and head of operative dentistry at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, was a plastics engineer. Almost a decade ago, he teamed up with his friend and former engineering mentor, Amad Tayebi, to develop a surgical mask for dentists that would help protect their eyes from tiny pieces of flying debris, a hazard of drilling and other procedures. They started their company, Eta Products—named for the Greek letter that engineers use to indicate maximum efficiency—about three years ago.
As soon as awareness of the pandemic washed across the country, Eta began to receive offers from middlemen who were willing to buy the masks at a significant markup—and who planned to resell them for considerably more, in light of the shortage of personal protective equipment that had developed.
But then a neighbor approached Arsenault and asked if he had any masks from his private dental practice that he could spare. The neighbor said his wife and her coworkers, nurses at a Boston hospital, were resorting to bandanas and handkerchiefs for facial protection. It was then Arsenault realized the extent of the hardship health-care workers were facing. “There were people out there who were really in trouble,” Arsenault said.
He went to his business partners. “We decided our refrigerators are full; we’re healthy; we’re with our families; we’re blessed,” he said. “Let’s do something that matters.”
They arranged for their stock of 20,000 masks, which was stored in a Dallas warehouse, to be sent to Arsenault’s home in Massachusetts. Then Arsenault and his 21-year-old sons divvied them up and brought them to Tufts School of Dental Medicine, Tufts Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Tayebi and Arsenault designed the Eta surgical dental mask with shielding to eliminate the hazard of the so-called “bottom gap”—the exposed area between the top of a conventional dental mask and the bottom edge of dental eye wear. Pieces of metal, broken burs, pumice, and other debris generated from dental procedures can fly up through the bottom gap during dental procedures, which can lead to eye injury. While doctors and nurses treating COVID-19 patients may not face flying debris to the same degree, the Eta masks do provide increased protection from aerosols that might carry the virus, Arsenault said.
The ride home with his boys in the emptied SUV was mostly silent, Arsenault recalled. “We were quietly reflecting. Then one of them said, ‘Dad, that was such an awesome thing we just did,’ and in that moment, the gravity of what was going on really hit me.”
“The life lesson for my children,” he said, “was more valuable than any income those masks could have produced.”
Helene Ragovin can be reached at email@example.com.