Kami Sutton, 26, who you met last week, has been waiting for a heart transplant for five years. But surgeons at Seattle Children’s and University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) are now preparing to perform a difficult surgery that could greatly improve her quality of life and may even eliminate her need for a transplant. It’s possible for the first time ever, thanks to a new, realistic heart model created with 3-D printing.
Living with an irregular heart
Sutton was born with her heart positioned backwards and on the opposite side of her chest. Since then, she has undergone 19 surgeries to help her existing heart keep her alive. Finding a heart for her is particularly challenging because each surgery has caused her to build up antibodies against donor tissue, so any donor heart must be a perfect match. Additionally, Sutton is just 4 feet 7 inches tall and weighs only 70 pounds, so will require a child-sized heart.
In the meantime, Sutton is in heart failure. Her heart currently functions with a single-lead pacemaker so that electricity passes from the right side of the muscle to the left. Unfortunately, this causes a delay between Sutton’s ventricles so they beat out of sync, which makes her lose significant heart function.
“I try not to let my heart stop me from doing anything,” Sutton said. “But I’m always short of breath. I struggle to walk a block and a half to my bus stop each day and I have never been able to participate in sports, other than bowling.”
Her surgeons believe that implanting a bi-ventricular pacemaker would get Sutton’s ventricles beating in sync. The procedure could significantly improve Sutton’s quality of life and may even eliminate her need for a transplant, but they aren’t sure how to perform the surgery on a heart as unique as Sutton’s.
“Kami’s heart is truly one-of-a-kind,” said Dr. Stephen Seslar, a congenital heart disease specialist and electrophysiologist at Seattle Children’s and UWMC. “Operating on her without understanding the anatomy of her heart better could be very dangerous.”
Creating a realistic model
Seslar began searching for a way to create a more realistic heart model five years ago so that surgeons could better learn to manipulate catheters around human hearts before performing the procedure on a patient.
“Practice makes perfect,” Seslar said. “The more a surgeon can practice before treating patients, the safer these procedures are.”
In 2010, Seslar began collaborating with Tom Burke, a Seattle materials engineer with a 3-D printer, to develop the HeartMAP™ Simulator. Using MRI or CT scans, the HeartMAP™ Simulator is printed as an exact replicate of a patient’s heart, down to the millimeter.
While other heart models have been created using 3-D printing, the HeartMAP™ Simulator is unique in that its proprietary-secret model material, in its sixth iteration, is palpably similar to heart tissue.
“Our first attempts produced stiff models that did not feel like human hearts,” Seslar said. “This model is soft and wet like a real heart inside a person. This creates a very different and more realistic experience for the surgeon. We know ahead of time where to maneuver, it allows us to develop a game plan and potentially reduce the surgery time.”
The model can be created in under three weeks and costs less than $750 in materials.
“Not only is our model accurate, but it can feasibly be produced,” Seslar said.
Replicating unique hearts
Seslar recognized that the HeartMAP™ Simulator could be modeled after typical or irregular hearts, allowing surgeons to realistically simulate procedures on patients with incredibly unique anatomies – like Sutton.
Now, Seslar is using a HeartMAP™ Simulator replica of Sutton’s heart to see how he might surgically place a double-lead pacemaker.
“I am proud to be one of the first to benefit from this research,” Sutton said. “I’ve always said Seattle Children’s is a miracle hospital, and this just proves it even further. Some day, it won’t take 19 operations to fix a heart like mine, and I will be a part of the research that makes that possible.”
Learn more about Sutton’s story and the HeartMAP™ Simulatorthat was featured in KING 5 Children’s HealthLink Special “Pushing Limits, Saving Lives.”