How a hi-tech plastic skull helped the newborn who couldn’t breathe

When baby Sophia was born with a rare condition her Perth surgeon turned to 3D printing to help solve the problem, asking biomedical engineers to build a custom made skull from plastic.

Sophia had a healthy, text book delivery, but her parents were shocked when they didn't hear their baby cry.

Instead, doctors yelled "Code Blue" as the infant could not breathe and was placed on a ventilator.

Sofia wasn't crying when she was born. Source: Today Tonight
Sofia was suffering a life-threatening birth defect. Source: Today Tonight

"It's not an easy sight when you see a minute old baby and they're doing compressions on her chest," mother, Brooke Seidel, said.

"We didn't know if she was going to make it."

Scans revealed a rare condition causing bone to fuse over Sophia's naval cavity.

"Sophia was born with complete blockage of the nose and was not able to breathe through her nose which is a life threatening condition for a baby," Dr Jenn Ha, a surgeon for the Princess Margaret Hospital, said.

Sofia had to have surgery. Source: Today Tonight
Her parents were concerned. Source: Today Tonight

Urgent surgery was the only solution but Dr Ha was concerned about operating on such a tiny baby.

"She was born fairly small for her age as well and whether the instruments were going to fit in her nose was one of the most important considerations - whether I could do the surgery on such a small baby," she said.

Sofia was hooked up to machines to help her breathe. Source: Today Tonight

Dr Ha came up with an idea that would allow her to practice the surgery first.

"I got in touch with the 3D team at Royal Perth Hospital," she said.

Technology was the answer. From CT scans of Sohia's skull an exact 3D model was produced.

A skull of Sofia's head was made. Source: Today Tonight

"It's often much easier to have have the solid object in your hand you can turn over roll it around," Dr Ha said.

"If they want to practice surgery as in this case they really needed to know if the instruments were going to fit the only real way to do that is to either try them in the patient or in our case try them on a model."

The model revealed that normal surgical instruments would be too big. Instead she turned to those usually used for operating in the small canals of the ear.

"To be able to know what we are going to as surgeons before we get there gives you the confidence and the skull itself," Dr Ha said.

"I was able to explain to Sophia's parents exactly what condition it is because its so hard to draw for them to visualise what's going on."

Sofia's now a healthy baby. Source: Today Tonight

"We could see exactly the scope of what needed to be done and to make sure that the surgeon had the right tools that would fit properly in her nose."

Knowing before surgery exactly what was required save time which meant less time under anaesthetic. Sophia has now had several procedures to open her nasal passages with at least one more to go.

"Hopefully it's the last procedure but there could be more to come," Mr Seidel said.

As well as breathing clearly, Sophia has a a remarkable souvenir.

"Some people cast their baby's feet and hands, well we've got her head," Ms Seidel said.