In Michigan, 22-year-old Megan Thompson was 30-weeks pregnant when doctors noticed that her unborn son Conan had a large mass on his face during a routine ultrasound. Their concern was that the mass was cancerous and blocking her son’s airway, which would prevent him from breathing during delivery.
However, Conan’s ultrasound and further testing did not provide enough information for the doctors to know how to proceed. Thompson was told that if her son’s airway was blocked, doctors would have to perform a risky EXIT procedure to give him a better chance at survival.
According to the St. Louis Fetal Care Institute, an EXIT delivery is performed when it is anticipated that a baby will have immediate life-threating problems once removed from the mother at delivery. Thompson explained, “It was really traumatizing. I got into a state where I was completely numb because I didn’t know if he was going to be alive or dead when he came out.”
After realizing that they needed more information, doctors at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan Health System decided to use a specialized MRI that would give them more data to build a 3D model of the unborn baby’s face. CBS News reports that the 3D model of Conan’s face predicted that he had a cleft lip without airway obstruction. This meant Thompson did not need the EXIT procedure or further intervention to deliver her son safely.
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Now Conan is a happy and healthy 9-month old. Thompson said, “He’s healthy and growing big.” The little boy is scheduled to have a procedure done to correct his cleft palate in November.
The Associate Professor of Pediatric Otolaryngology at Mott Children’s, Dr. Glenn Green, explained that the use of a 3D printer to determine potential problems during a delivery has never been done before. He said the following about the 3D model used for Conan: “By doing the 3D modeling, we were able to tell that the mass wasn’t cancerous and determined that it would be safe to not do the most advanced types of intervention.”
“This is the first case we are aware of that 3D printing has helped show how severe an airway risk in a fetus was in order to make clinical decisions. 3D printing may be an incredibly valuable tool to help doctors prepare for complex cases ahead of birth,” he continued.
Dr. Green says the technology could be used to show physicians details about unborn children that would otherwise remain unknown. He explained, “You can hold the baby in your hand before you see them and get an exact feel for what they’re like. You can discuss with other doctors and specialists and make plans while looking at exactly what we’re going to be doing. You can test instruments to make sure that they’re the right size. And not only can you make a 1 to 1 model, but you can make a 10 to 1 model, make something 10 times its size, to get a really detailed view of what’s going on.”
Pediatric Plastic Surgeon Dr. Albert Woo indicated that 3D printing could be used to save lives in the future. He said 3D printing “in this specific instance where airway distress is a major possible issue, potentially can help to revolutionize that field.” He concluded, “It really provides a new tool so that doctors are much better prepared to deal with airway problems or other congenital anomalies that they need to diagnose critically right when babies are born.”