Innovative Patients Help Themselves

Mike-Kelley-spine-3D-print-makerbot

A missed connecting flight in Chicago meant that the Arkansas leg of my 11-week, 22-state Listening Tour was unfortunately restricted to listening. I called in to a meeting with the EAST Initiative, which provides students with 3D printers and other technology to learn through projects that serve their communities.

And at the Innovation Hub, a makerspace in North Little Rock, I missed meeting Mike Kelley, a member who came by to use the MakerBot Replicator Z18 to take care of himself.

Kelley has a denegerative spinal disorder. He was at the Innovation Hub that morning to print a 3D model of his cervical spine, the section just below the neck. He started with a recent CT scan, which takes a lot of two-dimensional pictures, and found free software online that converts those slices into a 3D printable file. A network engineer at Cisco, Kelley had never used a 3D printer before, but he likes to make things in his shop at home, and he quickly got a handle on the MakerBot 3D Ecosystem and created a replica of his upper spine.

Kelley plans to bring the model of his spine to his next doctor’s appointment. In the meantime, friends can now see how his bones are worn down, and they seem to understand better that he’s hurting. “For a guy that will be 52 later this month, I think I’m very healthy,” says Kelley, who is a competitive weightlifter. “People don’t realize that sometimes I’m just sucking it up and getting through the day.”

The model also has helped Kelley come to grips with his own condition. He considers himself a visual person, and he had trouble deciphering the CT scan. 3D printing, he says, “brings back that mechanical approach to things.” Doctors have more practice reading CT scans, but 3D printed models are more clear, and can lead to better informed decisions.

Kelley is one of many people who have found their way to desktop 3D printing to manage their own medical problems or those of their loved ones. After 6-week-old Ari needed an emergency operation on her walnut-sized heart, her mother, Anne Garcia, started a nonprofit called OpHeart so that planning with 3D printed heart models becomes the standard for surgery on young children. When Michael Balzer’s wife needed a brain tumor removed, he printed a model of her skull and sent it to her surgeon, who was then able to perform a less invasive surgery. A Hodgkin’s patient printed out models of his tumor when it was discovered, and again after radiation and chemotherapy made it shrink. Researchers are modifying the MakerBot Replicator 2X Experimental 3D Printer to look into custom treatments, from administering the right amount of medication to replacing sections of windpipe. And of course there is Robohand, which began as a way to help one man and has grown into a global effort to provide low-cost prosthetics.

When it comes to 3D printing, doctors can get good ideas from patients, just as teachers can learn a lot from their students. Kelley says he told some doctor friends about his spine model, and they now want to know how he made it. Desktop 3D printing can make the worrisome world of medicine more concrete and accessible, and break down barriers between doctors and patients.

The same user-centered principle is behind the Bay Area Makeathon for Assistive Technology. We are proud to be the 3D printing partner for the event, which is hosted by TOM, UCP of the North Bay, and Google.org. At the Makeathon, people with skills such as product design, coding, and 3D printing will be collaborating with people who understand the needs of people with disabilities, including the people with disabilities themselves. We invited Kelley to join us at the Bay Area Makeathon, and he will use his making skills — including perhaps his newfound knowledge of 3D printing — to help others.