3D printers help Cardinal Glennon doctors plan for surgery

Doctors can now get their hands on the human hart before going on the operating table.

New technology lets doctors hold the human heart in their hands, before they even get into the operating room. Surgeons at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Hospital are now using 3D printers to prepare for their most complex cases.

And Riley Drummond’s case was a tricky one. Doctors discovered a heart murmur when she was just a newborn, and ordered a chest x-ray.

“When they did a chest x-ray they actually discovered that her heart was on the right-hand side rather than on the left,” remembered Riley’s mother, Micah.

Riley would ultimately have three open heart surgeries. The first two were uncomplicated, her mother said. But then Riley developed an aneurysm in her heart, making the third surgery much more complicated.

Doctors decided to use a new tool to get a better look at the problem. They made a 3D printed image of Riley’s heart, an exact replica, in order to study, consult and plan for the surgery.

Dr. Wilson King is a pediatric cardiologist and co-director of cardiac radiology at SLUCare and Cardinal Glennon. He was part of the team that created the 3D model.

“Having a physical model that’s actually the size of the heart that they're going to be working on in the operating room, and begin able to look at this, hold it in their hand, begin able to rotate that -- really gives them a much better sense of what they're going to be able to anticipate in the operating room,” he said.

“Every patient is very different, and having these types of tools available really helps the team and the surgeon really personalize therapy and treatment for each patient.”

Dr. Andrew Fiore is the director of cardiothoracic surgery at SLUCare and Cardinal Glennon, and says there are several benefits of the 3D model. 

First, it gives doctors a three dimensional understanding of how to correct the problem. Second, he said the models are easy to share with colleagues. Fiore said the 3D models are less important for routine procedures, but very valuable for the complex cases where doctors would ask for the opinions of other experienced professionals about managing a difficult heart defect.

Lastly, Dr. Fiore said 3D models help surgeons explain the process to patients and their families.

“It gives them confidence,” he said. “They feel more secure. It’s that ‘unknown part’ that leads to insecurity and uneasiness and anxiety. Whereas, a lot of that is eliminated when you can show them this [model] and explain it and show them how you’re going to do the repair. I find that it eases their anxiety about the operation on their child.”

Doctors at Cardinal Glennon want to create a 3D Center of Excellence, estimated at $5 million, in order to expand the program. That includes:

  • Building the hospital’s own 3D printing laboratory with three medical grade printers and diagnostic imaging equipment
  • Adding technologists to create the models
  • And creating an endowment to provide ongoing support for the program

Cardinal Glennon says this technology can help cardiology patients, as well as those in plastic surgery, neurosurgery, orthopedics and interventional radiology.

Riley Drummond is now five years old and just started kindergarten.

“She’s doing great,” said mom, Micah. “She plays softball, she loves to dance and cheer. She’s our miracle baby. She's amazing!”


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