3D-printed skull helps to save newborn’s life

The 3D-printed skull that helped to save baby Sophia's life. (Photo courtesy of Today Tonight).
The 3D-printed skull that helped to save baby Sophia’s life in Perth, Australia. (Photo courtesy of Today Tonight).

Here’s an inspiring story from 3DPrint.com – especially heartwarming at this time of the year. Sofia wasn’t crying when she was born. It’s hard to think about the feelings that must have been experienced by a couple in Perth, Australia when their baby was born, and there was no accompanying crying. Instead, what the horrified couple heard was their doctor yell “code blue” and begin performing chest compressions. Little Sofia was diagnosed with a rare birth defect that caused the bone in her skull to completely fuse over her nasal cavity, leaving her unable to breathe through her nose. As babies are unable to breathe through their mouths, this was a life-threatening condition. After reviving Sofia, she was hooked up to a machine that helped her to breathe, and her family and medical team began to prepare for her surgery. “It’s not an easy sign when you see a minute-old baby and they’re doing compressions on her chest. We didn’t know if she was going to make it,” her mother recalled. It was imperative that baby Sofia have surgery immediately. Luckily, she was at the Princess Margaret Hospital in the hands of the skilled Dr. Jenn Ha, who knew exactly what to do. She quickly reached out to the 3D team at the Royal Perth Hospital. The increased awareness within the medical community regarding the potential of 3D printing also means that there are more 3D teams already integrated into medical facilities – making it possible, in this case, for them to create an exact 3D model of the baby’s skull in-house!

The Perth Children's Hospital.
The Royal Perth Children’s Hospital.

The rapid turnaround time and expert eyes afforded by these facilities are changing the face of medical practice and proved vital to preparing for the surgery. As Dr. Ha explained: “She was born fairly small for her age..…and whether the instruments were going to fit in her nose was one of the most important considerations – whether I could do the surgery on such a small baby. It’s often much easier to have the solid (3D printed) object in your hand you can turn over and roll around to practice surgery – as in this case, we really needed to know if the instruments were going to fit. The only real way to do that is either try them in the patient or, in our case, try them on a model.” Sofia was hooked up to machines to help her breathe. As a result of being able to practice with the 3D-printed model, the surgical team realized before the fact that the tools traditionally used for surgery wouldn’t fit on such a small patient. As a result, Dr. Ha was able to prepare (rather than finding out in the moment) and use smaller tools that are typically used for operations to be performed in the smaller spaces of the ear canal. In addition to providing the surgeon with information before the surgery, the model was valuable in explaining to Sofia’s parents exactly what her condition was, and how the operation would help to address it.

This is one remarkable way in which 3D-printed models have been making medical interventions more accessible to both patients and their families – serving to prepare the medical team for the operation itself, and helping to alleviate the incredible stress surrounding such procedures. As a result, the use of 3D-printed models is becoming a more standard component of a wide variety of surgical procedures. As Dr. Ha stated: “To be able to know what we’re going to do as surgeons before we get in there, gives you confidence. I was also able to explain to Sofia’s parents exactly what condition it was – because it’s so hard to draw for them to visualize what’s going on. We could see exactly the scope of what needed to be done, to make sure that the surgeon had the right tools that would fit properly in her nose.” While some parents have impressions or casts made of their babies’ feet or hands, in this case, the family has a 3D print of their baby’s head! The result was a successful outcome that has repaired the defect in her nasal cavity, and left both Sofia and her parents breathing easy!

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.