3D printed heart model. Source: http://www.3ders.org
3D printed heart model. Source: http://www.3ders.org

3D printing helped to save a 14-month-old boy’s life. The infant, Roland Lian Cung Bawi, was born with several heart problems, including a hole in his heart and a misaligned aorta and pulmonary artery. Roland had trouble with breathing and couldn’t sleep. His mother, Par Tha Sung said, “I didn't think he would survive.”

Erle Austin is the doctor who performed surgery on Roland. The difficulty that surgeons have is that they often do not know exactly what the heart looks like until the actual surgery. And in the case of an infant, the situation is even more delicate. Doctors typically look at Magnetic Resonance Images (MRI) before the surgery. However, Roland’s case was different. Austin had asked the opinion and advice of several doctors and received conflicting answers on how to proceed.

“Some people think when you do heart surgery, you go in and can see everything. Well, to see everything, you have to slice through vital structures,” Austin said. “Sometimes the surgeon has to guess at what's the best operation.”

Not taking any chances, Austin found a way around the problem. He took the 2D scans to Tim Gornet, the Manager of the University of Louisville’s Rapid Prototyping Center. The center provides 3D printing and research and had already done work for spinal defects and tumors.

Gornet used the scans to create a 3D model of Roland’s heart. The heart was printed on a MakerBot using Ninja Flex material and took 20 hours to print. The cost was about $600. The model heart was printed about twice as large as Roland’s heart so that Austin could clearly see everything that he needed in order to create a tunneled pathway between the aortic valve and a ventricle, avoiding more cuts and multiple surgeries.

“Once I had a model, I knew exactly what I needed to do and how I could do it,” said Austin.  Gornet said, “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a model is worth 1,000 pictures.”

Roland had a checkup last Friday and his prognosis was good. Par Tha Sung said, “I couldn't express my feelings. He sleeps good. He plays. He smiles a lot.”