Garrett Peterson and his mother, Natalie Peterson. Source: Nicole Haley/University of Michigan Health System
Garrett Peterson and his mother, Natalie Peterson. Source: Nicole Haley/University of Michigan Health System

Garrett Peterson, an 18-month-old from Layton, Utah, has never gone home from the hospital. He has a condition called tetralogy of Fallot with Absent Pulmonary Valve, which means that Garrett has a hole between the lower chambers of his heart. This condition put extreme pressure on his lungs, causing his airways to collapse. He struggled to breathe through tiny slits.

The Petersons watched for months as their son would turn blue four or five times a day, making simple things like changing a diaper a life-threatening situation. Hospital staff would revive him and Garrett was put on a ventilator to help him breathe. He was often on heavy medication so that he wouldn’t fight the breathing tube. At one point, Garrett was put into a medically-induced coma to prevent him from working against the breathing tube.

“It's really hard to watch your child basically suffocate and pass out before you could revive him and bring him back, over and over,” says Jake Peterson, Garrett's father.

“Nothing would stop him from turning blue. Just lifting his legs for diaper change would collapse his airways and that was it. There was nothing we could do to help him,” says Natalie Peterson, Garrett's mother.

Finally, a solution for Garrett’s condition came through: In May 2013, Jake Peterson read an article about another baby with a similar breathing problem. This baby, Kaiba Gionfriddo, had bronchial malacia, a rare obstruction of the lung. Doctors had successfully used a 3D-printed splint to create a path through Kaiba’s airway. Kaiba is now two years old and is free of symptoms related to bronchial malacia.

“We thought this could be Garrett's chance of not only getting home but also getting off a ventilator,” Natalie Peterson says.

The Petersons reached out to Dr. Glenn Green, who had performed the surgery on Kaiba, to see if he could help Garrett. Dr. Glenn Green is an Associate Professor of Pediatric Otolaryngology at the University of Michigan. Dr. Green told CNN, “It's magical to me. We're talking about taking dust and using it to build body parts.”

By December, Garrett was in critical condition. His gut was shutting down from the high pressure ventilator and he had been in Intensive Care for over a month. The Petersons took Garrett to the hospital in Michigan and received emergency clearance from the FDA to use a 3D printed device to save their baby’s life.

“It was highly questionable whether or not he would survive,” Dr. Green said about Garrett's condition.

“It's horrible not knowing when your child is going to die. It's horrible not knowing when one of these episodes is going to be the one he doesn't make it through.”

Scott Hollister, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering and associate professor of surgery at University of Michigan, teamed up with Dr. Green to create a 3D printed splint custom-made to fit baby Garrett. Dr. Hollister used a CT scan of Garrett’s bronchi to make a 3D model of Garrett’s airway. This helped Dr. Hollister to specially design and create the splint to fit Garrett’s bronchi.

On January 31st, 2014 Dr. Richard G. Ohye, M.D., the head of Pediatric Cardiovascular Surgery at C.S. Mott, assisted by Dr. Green, sewed the two splints onto two spots of Garrett’s airway. These splints successfully expanded Garrett’s airway and will be reabsorbed naturally by his body in about three years, giving Garrett time to heal.

“There we go, up and down,” said Dr. Green as the lungs began to inflate during the surgery. “We know the splint is working, he's able to ventilate both lungs. I'm very optimistic for him.”

“It is a tremendous feeling to know that this device has saved another child,” said Hollister. “We believe there are many other applications for these techniques, but to see the impact living and breathing in front of you is overwhelming.”

Garrett’s splints have allowed him to breathe on his own for the first, with decreased ventilation support, less than a quarter of the pressure needed before. He’s also had short stints without the ventilator. He may need ventilator support for a short while longer, but Garrett is doing well enough that he can use a home ventilator. His gut is working again and he will soon be able to go home for the first time.

Three weeks after the surgery, Garrett was smiling at his parents. “We haven't seen smiles for a while, so getting smiles is very exciting,” Natalie Peterson said.