Quality of Life

3D printing leads to surgical breakthrough for patient

A life-size, 3D printout of a patient’s ribcage helped ECU doctors perform a less-invasive, life-changing surgery for one Goldsboro man.

Franklin Arnold was left with chronic pain after a surgery to correct his debilitating scoliosis three years ago. Several doctors told him there wasn’t anything they could do for him and then his pain management doctor referred him to Dr. Carlos Anciano, thoracic surgeon and ECU assistant professor.

“Dr. Anciano walked in the room and said he knew what was wrong and could fix it,” said Arnold.

Anciano and Dr. Preston Sparks, ECU cardiothoracic surgery fellow, collaborated with Dr. Ranjeet Agarwala, assistant professor with ECU’s College of Engineering and Technology. The project was personal for Agarwala who dreamed of having his college team up with ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and Joyner Library after his daughter needed a thoracic procedure in 2014. During that process, he began to see the role 3D printing could play within health care.

“I knew ECU had the infrastructure to use this innovation to have an amazing impact in the future,” said Agarwala.

Dr. Carlos Anciano shows a 3D model of Franklin Arnold’s ribcage with Dr. Ranjeet Agarwala.

Prior corrective surgeries caused a deformity in Arnold’s chest, which led to what he calls traumatic pain that impaired his daily functions, forcing him to wear a brace for two years and taking away his breath.

“I kept telling everybody I’m having major pain here,” said Arnold. “I was on a lot of pain medicine.”

Collaboration using 3D printing

After meeting with Arnold, Anciano and Sparks discussed treatment options. Sparks, who is on active military duty and completing his surgery fellowship at ECU and Vidant Medical Center, said he was not used to seeing this kind of chest wall trauma in Greenville. It resembled traumatic injuries accustomed to battlefields and wartime.

“I was in Dr. Anciano’s clinic when we saw Franklin come in initially,” said Sparks. “We sat down between cases one day, and he said he had this idea.”

Graduate student Joshua Bruce Stevens meets surgery patient Franklin Arnold – whose rib cage he printed in 3D – for the first time.

That idea was to introduce 3D technology into Arnold’s treatment plan. Knowing ECU’s 3D printing capabilities, Sparks reached out to Agarwala, who responded quickly.

With MRI files in hand, Sparks met with Agarwala and College of Engineering and Technology graduate student Joshua Bruce Stevens.

“He was the ideal student (to work on this project),” said Agarwala.

Stevens initially worked with Sparks to make sure the files were correct and compatible with the software. Aided by Dan Zuberbier, education & instructional technology librarian, Stevens printed a life-size 3D model of Arnold’s rib cage in ECU’s Joyner Library.

“We collaborated with some of the finest doctors in the world,” said Agarwala. “Joshua took this project and ran with it.”

“(The 3D model) showed us the original disfiguring that came about from Franklin’s twisted spine,” said Anciano. “It also showed the way he healed from previous corrections to his curvature.”

Preparation made easier

Anciano realized the approach for surgical intervention would be difficult, so he used the 3D model to provide a topographical map for rebuilding the patient’s chest wall with titanium mesh.

The surgery was completed on March 22. It took nine hours.

“This is the first time we married 3D printing and computer-animated modeling with an intention to treat,” said Anciano.

“Dr. Sparks got me up out of bed two days later, and I was able to walk,” said Arnold. “I immediately realized my breathing; it was a whole lot better. Talk about taking walks with my wife and child – I can do that now. Yes, I still have issues, but I know without a doubt, it’s helped a lot.”

“It’s like Christmastime”

When the graduate student got the chance recently to meet the patient whose rib cage he 3D printed months before, Stevens described it in four simple words: “It’s like Christmastime.”

“He (Arnold) was able to get something wonderful out of it, and I was able to get something out of it too,” Stevens said.

Now, Arnold is waking up every morning looking forward to the day ahead. He says his wife introduced him to the term “quality of life.”

“I didn’t understand it before, but I do now.”