The surgeon held a translucent white plastic eye socket in each hand. Gently moving them away from each other, Dr. John Meara showed the distance between Violet Pietrok’s eyes at birth. He slid the sockets closer to demonstrate their positions 19 months later, after he had operated on her. Violet, now nearly two, was born with a rare defect called a Tessier facial cleft. Her dark brown eyes were set so far apart, her mother says, that her vision was more like a bird of prey’s than a person’s. A large growth bloomed over her left eye. She had no cartilage in her nose. The bones that normally join to form the fetal face had not fused properly.
Her parents, Alicia Taylor and Matt Pietrok, sought out Meara at Boston Children’s Hospital, thousands of miles from their home in Oregon, because the plastic surgeon had performed four similar operations in the previous three years. Before he operated on Violet, Meara wanted a more precise understanding of her bone structure than he could get from an image on a screen. So he asked his colleague Dr. Peter Weinstock to print him a three-dimensional model of Violet’s skull, based on MRI pictures.
That first model helped him to decide what might need to be done and to discuss his treatment plan with her family. Three more 3-D printouts closer to the operation allowed Meara to rotate the model skull in directions he could not manage with a picture and would not attempt with a patient on the operating table. Then he was able to cut and manipulate the plastic model to determine the best way to push her eye sockets more than an inch closer together.
Such 3-D-printed models are transforming medical care, giving surgeons new perspectives and opportunities to practice, and patients and their families a deeper understanding of complex procedures. Hospitals are also printing training tools and personalized surgical equipment. Someday, doctors hope to print replacement body parts. “There’s no doubt that 3-D printing is going to be disruptive medicine,” said Dr. Frank Rybicki, the director of the applied imaging science lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a few blocks from Boston Children’s.