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After Near Death Miss, Campaign to 3D Print Hearts to Save Other Babies’ Lives

February 24, 2015

Ariana Garcia was born healthy and happy, in June of last year.  But only weeks later, her parents would rush her to the emergency room after a fitful night and an episode in which their daughter went limp.

“Normally she hated diaper changes, but when I went to change her this time, she barely moved and was making a mewing sound,” father Sergio Garcia recounts.  “At that point, I got scared.”

Doctor immediately began giving the 6-week-old oxygen, to no effect, and warned her parents that their daughter was in grave danger and to prepare for the worst.

Mother Annie Garcia recalls the feeling when she overheard doctors, upon seeing their older son, Hugo,  say “well, at least they will still have one child.”  “My stomach dropped, and I started shaking, certain that they would tell us that our precious baby was dead.”

Ariana had been born with a critical congenital heart defect (CCHD), a condition known as Transposition of the Great Arteries (TGA).  TGA occurs when the two main arteries that pump blood into and out of the heart are transposed, or flipped, resulting in oxygen-rich blood from the lungs circulating inside the heart, without ever leaving to reach the increasingly oxygen-deprived body and other vital organs.  As a result of this deprivation, Ariana would suffer a brain seizure, resulting in damage to her brain.

“It was a complete shock. To think that our perfect baby had been slowly suffocating, and we were oblivious,” Anne says.

Ariana required immediate open heart surgery, to be followed by corrective surgery, an arterial switch.  She would be in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit for over 2 months, over half her life at the time.  Her recovery is credited to the incredible care she received and, in particular, a highly skilled and experienced surgeon.

Dr. Mark Vogel, director of Cardiac Magnetic Resonance at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, emphasizes the challenges facing pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons. “They are under an awesome amount of pressure . . . [and] are working on these ultra-tiny structures.  A couple millimeters here, a couple millimeters there, can make the difference between a bad surgery, a good surgery and a great surgery. So the surgeon is basically in a race to repair the heart, and repair it well.”

3D Printing of Babies’ Hearts

Anne, an attorney and owner of a product development company, had experience with 3D printing for protoyping purposes, and she began talking to doctors to see if the technology could benefit kids with CCHDs.  She learned that doctors have started utilizing 3D printing.  Using MRI, 3D ultrasound and CT scans to generate the raw data, doctors can print replicas of patients’ hearts in order to “see” the heart before they step foot into the operating room.  This allows them to develop a detailed surgical strategy, saving them precious time and even enabling them to practice the surgery beforehand.

Dr. Charles Fraser, surgeon-in-chief of Texas Children’s Hospital, enthuses “3D modeling is enormously exciting.” For example, “to have a 3D model of a valve before you operate on it and practice the repair, that would be super super cool.”

While the technology exists, there are several challenges to the widespread dissemination of this tool.  3D printed models are only available at a handful of elite hospitals and the cost is covered on an ad hoc basis with grant or research dollars.  As such, they can only be utilized in a very limited number of cases, and are not available for the vast majority of kids with CCHDs.

Op Heart

The Garcias want to change that. They are launching a crowdfund campaign to start Op Heart, a non-profit organization whose mission is to get 3D printed models of kids’ hearts into the hands of all pediatric cardiac care teams that need the tool.   Money raised will go to start the organization and to fund a study that the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is organizing.

Dr. Yoav Dori, a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is leading the study, which will involve multiple institutions across the United States and Europe[, including Texas Children’s Hospital, Cedars Sinai, DC National Children’s Hospital, and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

“This study is incredibly important because it will finally quantify what we know from firsthand experience.  3D models improve surgery, improve outcomes and result in lower treatment costs, and if we can empirically demonstrate this, it will be a game changer for treating not only children with congenital heart defects, but patients across the board,” Dori says.

The campaign will appear on the Kickstarter platform on March 16.  Gifts for contributions include models of an actual 3D printed heart that was used in the surgery of one heart warrior, a 3D printed necklace of the model used in the treatment of baby Jemma, custom 3D printed shoe insoles and, for one lucky contributor, a custom-made, life-size 3D printed model of his/her entire cardiovascular system.

Anne says, “We know how blessed we were, to have gotten Ari to a top-notch surgeon minutes before she would have died.  But not everyone is as lucky, and the relatively short moment in time from diagnosis to treatment of a CCHD can determine the entire trajectory of a child’s life, or even whether she lives or dies.  We want all families to have the best care possible, and doctors to have the tools to perform at their best.”

To learn more about Op Heart, visit opheart.org.