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Baby Thrives Once 3-D-Printed Windpipe Helps Him Breathe

Dec 23, 2014
Originally published on December 23, 2014 4:20 pm

Garrett Peterson was born in 2012 with a defective windpipe. It would periodically just collapse, because the cartilage was so soft, and he'd stop breathing. This would happen every day — sometimes multiple times a day.

"It was really awful to have to watch him go through his episodes," says his father, Jake Peterson of Layton, Utah. "He'd be fine and then all of a sudden start turning blue. It was just like watching your child suffocate over and over again."

It was so bad that Garrett couldn't leave the hospital; he spent more than a year in intensive care. This time last year, doctors weren't sure how much longer they could keep him alive.

"Garrett was so sick in the hospital and we — we really, really thought we were going to lose him," remembers his mother, Natalie Peterson. "The doctors were telling us, you know, that there really wasn't anything more they could do."

Then the Petersons heard about some doctors at the University of Michigan who were using 3-D printers to custom-make tiny devices they call "splints" to prop open defective windpipes for babies like Garrett. The Petersons rushed their son to Ann Arbor.

When Shots first reported this story back in March, Garrett had just gotten his splint, and it seemed to be working really well. But at that point, he was still in the hospital.

Two weeks later, he was finally able to leave the hospital for the first time in his life.

Since getting home, Garrett has still needed some help, especially at night, his parents say. But he's getting better every day.

"He can breathe — like, on his own completely," says Natalie Peterson. "It's so nice just to hear him breathe ... to be able to hear him take big deep breaths and things that we never knew he'd be able to do."

Other physical problems Garrett was having have also improved, such as complications with his heart and digestive system.

"It's just been amazing to see how much it's helped him," Jake says. "It's just been completely night and day."

The Petersons have started living a normal life with their son — they can now do things like roll around with him on the floor, read him books on their laps and laugh together at his favorite Mickey Mouse videos.

Natalie remembers a moment recently when Garrett fell asleep on the floor of their family room, which was dark except for the lights on the Christmas tree.

"I was sitting there thinking, 'Wow,' " she says. "We never knew if we would be able to get Garrett home. To be able to see him just napping — breathing comfortably on the floor in our family room — it was just overwhelming."

Dr. Glenn Green, a pediatric head and neck specialist who treated Garrett, says he expects that the boy will continue to improve.

"We know the splint has been opening up the way that we wanted," Green says. "And so the airway is able to grow. So, at this point, we're just waiting for further growth to happen and for the splint to eventually dissolve."

Another boy Green had treated earlier, on an experimental basis, and a third baby who got a splint a few months after Garrett are also doing well, Green says. So he's now working to get his 3-D-printed windpipe splints officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration, which he hopes will make it easier to help even more babies.

"I'm just extremely pleased to see the children doing well," Green says. "It just is the most rewarding thing for a physician — to see somebody that had never been home from the hospital now able to enjoy the holidays. I couldn't ask for a better present."

The Petersons are looking forward to Christmas, too.

"We're just so, so excited to have him home and to able to, you know, spend Christmas morning in our pajamas — just hanging out in our family room," Natalie says. "It's going to be great."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're checking back this morning on a story we first heard about in the spring. It was about a baby who couldn't breathe and 3-D printing which his family hoped would save him. Here's NPR's Rob Stein.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: For anyone who missed our earlier story, here's a quick reminder of what happened. Garrett Peterson was born with a defective windpipe. It would suddenly just collapse over and over again every day. Here's how his dad, Jake, describes what it was like.

JAKE PETERSON: I mean, it was really awful to have to watch him go through his episodes that he'd have. He'd be fine, and then all of a sudden, he would just start turning blue. It was just like watching your child suffocate over and over again.

STEIN: It was so bad, Garrett was never able to leave the intensive care unit in Salt Lake City. And his mom, Natalie, says doctors weren't sure how much longer they could keep him alive.

NATALIE PETERSON: Last year at this time, Garrett was so sick in the hospital, and we really, really thought we were going to lose him. And the doctors were telling us, you know, they were thinking there probably wasn't anything more they could do.

STEIN: Then the Petersons heard about some doctors at the University of Michigan. They were using 3-D printers to custom-make tiny devices they call splints to prop open defective wind pipes for babies like Garrett. So they rushed Garrett to Ann Arbor.

When our story aired back in March, Garrett had just gotten his splint, and it seemed to be working really well. But Garrett was still in the hospital. It turns out two weeks later, Garrett was finally able to go home for the first time in his life. He was 19 months old. The biggest change is his breathing.

NATALIE PETERSON: He can breathe, like, on his own completely. I always - I keep saying to Jake and stuff - we keep saying it together, we're, like, oh, it's so nice to just hear him breathe, you know, be able to hear him take big, deep breaths and things like that that we never knew if he would be able to do.

STEIN: He still needs some help, especially at night, but Garrett's getting better every day. And that's not all - lots of other problems he was having with his heart, eating, have also gotten better.

JAKE PETERSON: It's just been amazing to see how much it's helped him. And, yeah, it's just been completely night and day.

STEIN: So the Petersons have been able to start living more normal lives, rolling around on the floor with their son, reading him books on their laps, laughing together at his favorite Mickey Mouse videos.

NATALIE PETERSON: Just the other day, you know, we have our Christmas tree set up in our family room now, and he had fallen asleep. And it was just kind of dark in the family room, and the Christmas tree light was on. And I was just sitting there thinking, wow, like, I get overwhelmed because I just think, you know, we never knew if we would be able to get Garrett home. And just this year to be able to see him just napping, breathing comfortably on the floor in our family room, it's just overwhelming. And then I found myself just lying on the floor by him for a while because I was just - it was just so, so sweet.

STEIN: Garrett's doctor, Glenn Green, says he expects the boy will continue to improve. The splint made with the 3-D printer is doing exactly what it was designed to do.

GLENN GREEN: We know the splint has been opening up the way that we wanted. And so the airway's able to grow. And so at this point, we're just waiting for further growth to happen and for the splint to eventually dissolve.

STEIN: Another boy Green treated the same way before Garrett and a third baby who got a splint a few months after are also doing well. So Green's now working to get his 3-D-printed windpipe splints officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration to make it easier to help even more babies.

GREEN: I'm just extremely pleased to see the children doing well. It just is the most rewarding thing for a physician to see somebody that had never been home from the hospital now able to enjoy the holidays. I couldn't ask for a better present.

STEIN: And the Petersons are looking forward to their Christmas present, too.

NATALIE PETERSON: We're just so, so excited to have him home and be able to, you know, spend Christmas morning in our pajamas and just hanging out in our family room, and it's going to be great. I'm really excited.

STEIN: Rob Stein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.