Jan 12, 2016 | By Alec

Over the past few years, it has become increasingly apparent that 3D printing technology and 3D imaging techniques can play an important role in complex surgeries. In academic hospitals all over the world, doctors are building 3D printable surgical models that can help them prepare for surgeries as best as they can. This was also necessary to save the life of the six-month old Teegan Lexcen from Minnesota. In dire need of heart surgery, doctors in the Nicklaus Childen’s Hospital in Miami turned to 3D printing but actually met a terrible setback. With Teegan’s life in grave danger, the 3D printer wasn’t working. Fortunately, one of the doctors owned a Google Cardboard virtual reality headset and used its 3D imaging options to prep for the surgery.

The story of Teegan is a nightmare for all parents. Born in August 2015 with just one lung and an incomplete heart, experts predicted that she would not live. In fact, doctors told parents Cassidy and Chad to just take her home to die in peace. But when she was still alive two months later, the parents instead got in touch with innovative pediatric surgeon Dr. Redmond Burke from the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, who was willing to help after seeing images of Teegan’s heart. However, time was of the essence. Teegan’s twin sister Riley was growing steadily, but Teegan made absolutely no progress at all – emphasizing just how poorly her heart was working. "I felt like we were racing against the clock," mom Cassidy told CNN.

But the state of her heart necessitated some extreme surgery. During a meeting of cardiac doctors, it was determined that Teegan needed very invasive heart surgery, though none of the doctors present had ever seen such a particular situation. Burke therefore asked pediatric cardiologist Dr. Juan Carlos Muniz to make a 3D printed model of the heart, something that had helped before in Miami. But even those quality hospital 3D printers aren’t perfect, and the 3D printer was broken right during that crucial week. "Technology always goes on the fritz at the worst possible time," he lamented.

However, the inventive doctors came up with a clever solution, as they were already working on 3D models of the heart in Sketchfab. After a discussing with Dr. David Ezon from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Muniz decided to give Virtual Reality a try – something that is obviously already available in the Google Cardboard. As you probably know, the Google Cardboard is essentially a big cardboard set of goggles that costs around $20 and can hold your smartphone. Through an app, images can be seen and manipulated in 3D. Using this construction, the surgical team thoroughly planned the surgery – just like they would otherwise have done with the help of 3D printed models. Crucially, it enabled them to intuitively manipulate the images and see it from all angles. The Google Cardboard enabled the surgeon to see that Teegan missed a ventricle (the left one, responsible for supplying blood to the rest of the body. "The right ventricle is the wimpier, weaker ventricle, and if ventricles could talk, it would say 'I can't do this. I'm not designed for this job,'" Burke said. In VR, Burke carefully studied how her one ventricle could be rerouted to take care of the extra work.

This preparation made a huge difference, as Teegan’s unique heart is located on the left side of her chest and needed a so-called clamshell incision to reach it. While conventional heart surgery simply goes straight through the breastbone, this is a far more invasive operation. "It's massive trauma to a baby -- it's just horrendous," Burke said. "She was dwindling away. She'd been slowly dying for three months." Fortunately, through VR manipulation, even the surgical path could be carefully mapped and greatly increased the likelihood of success.

Teegan went into surgery in early December, and the surgical team found that her heart looked exactly like they had seen in VR. "Sometimes that's what makes the difference between life and death," the surgeon said. The surgery proceeded without any complications and now, a month later, Teegan has been taken off the ventilator and is breathing manually. It is expected that she can make a full recovery and can go home in February.

While we sometimes see 3D printed surgical models make these vital contributions, it’s good to see that a VR headset will be just as useful in a critical situation. Of course they are both expressions of next-gen 3D imaging technology, which is clearly going to play a more crucial medical role in the near future. "It was mind-blowing," says Cassidy Lexcen, the baby's mother. "To see this little cardboard box and a phone, and to think this is what saved our daughter's life."



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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