3d images

3D ultrasound images allow blind parents to feel their baby’s face

One of the most powerful experiences for expectant parents is to see their baby’s ultrasound image. But for blind parents, this moment was impossible.

Now, however, sophisticated technology allows them to “see” their little ones before they are born by creating a 3D image to form in the image of their baby’s face.

Receiving a 3D bas-relief model of her baby’s face in the mail was “really emotional” for Taylor Ellis, 26, a blind woman in Cockeysville, Maryland. “I was a little nervous about opening the box,” Ellis said. “I had never seen a 3D (image), and now it’s your baby, and it’s like, wow.”

The idea evolved from a procedure developed several years ago at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for fetuses with spina bifida. Jena Miller, an obstetrician and surgeon at the Johns Hopkins Center for Fetal Therapy, realized that 3D printing would allow her to get a clear picture of the spine of babies who needed in utero surgery for spina bifida.

Called fetoscopic myelomeningocele repair, the surgery is performed through two small holes in the mother’s uterus. In the past, surgeons opened the uterus to perform surgery on the spine of the fetus. This new procedure, Miller said, means the surgical team performs the minimally invasive surgery in advance using a 3D model of the baby nestled in a soccer ball “so we can know and anticipate as much as possible.”

Research hospitals such as Johns Hopkins have long used 3D printing technology to create models of human organs and fetal hearts for surgery, to form prosthetics, and even to make ventilator separators, which can allow one ventilator to treat multiple patients.

Using 3D technology to create fetal models for blind parents was the brainchild of one of the hospital’s sonographers, Miller said.

3D ultrasounds are only used for patients who might need a more detailed view of the fetus for diagnostic purposes. When the sonographer realized they were doing a scan for a blind mother, she asked Miller, referring to the creation of a 3D model: “Do you think this is something we can make ?” Miller replied, “See if you can capture a good picture.”

Since 3D ultrasound does not scan the entire body of the fetus, the team decided that the face was the obvious choice for an image.

Ellis and her husband, Jeremy Ellis, who is also visually impaired, have two daughters, ages 5 and 3. When they were born, Taylor Ellis said she had a certain vision. But since then her glaucoma has gotten worse, so the chance to get to know baby No. 3 in this way was a new world.

“It’s super real when you can feel it,” she says. It was almost like she was pregnant for the first time because she had so much more detail. The ultrasound experience can be frustrating even for sighted parents, Ellis said, because technicians are limited in the real-time description they can offer parents during the procedure. If the fetus has a problem, it’s up to the doctor to explain it, she says.

Miller said she was not aware of any hospital, other than Johns Hopkins, offering the service. The material cost is estimated to be around $1.40 and each print takes around 3.5 hours.

Pamela Lauer, a high school teacher in Snow Hill, Maryland, was the first parent at Johns Hopkins to receive a 3D print of her baby’s face. She is sighted but says she needed a 3D test because her fetus had developed a congenital cyst which affected her heart. Doctors had to place shunts to drain the cyst, and monitoring required weekly ultrasounds until she was born. (The child, who is now almost 4 years old, is in good health.)

Spending so much time at Johns Hopkins doing ultrasounds and seeing 3D prints caused Lauer and her husband to ask about the 3D printer. As the technicians knew they were interested, after their son returned from the hospital, they sent a 3D print of his face.

“It was awesome and amazing,” Lauer says. “It looks like him.”

For parents who are blind, this new possibility is exciting, said Melissa Riccobono, president of Maryland Parents of Blind Children, a division of the National Federation of the Blind, where her husband, Mark Riccobono, serves as president. She and her husband are both blind, as are two of their three children.

As she was expecting her first child, who is now 13, technicians gave her an impression from technology that allowed the image to lift a little off the page, an impression she describes as being in 2½ dimensions and not in 3D. “It was always kind of sad for me not to be able to see that ultrasound,” she says.

Melissa Riccobono would have loved to have 3D printed models, she said. “It’s a really cool way to meet that little being inside of you before you actually meet that little being,” she said.

It would be a great service for many people, she said.

“For families, instead of having to show them a picture of an ultrasound, how cool would it be for them to get their hands on what the baby looks like now,” she said. By relying so much on images, “we’re really missing the opportunity to use our other senses,” she said. “More than the blind would appreciate that.”

Miller at Johns Hopkins issued a note of caution. While she could imagine 3D prints for fetuses with cleft palate or other issues requiring surgery, ultrasound is a diagnostic tool and “not for fun,” Miller said. “We have to be a little careful.”

Innovations in surgery are what “change babies’ lives,” Miller said. “But we should seize every opportunity to improve the pregnancy experience for mothers, regardless of their challenges.

“So if it’s mothers who are blind and we can give them a unique experience, we always have to raise their level of care.”

For Ellis, having a 3D image means she was able to answer a question about her baby before she was born on June 10. “I don’t like my nose,” Ellis said. She wanted the baby to have her husband’s nose. “The one thing that’s just super distinct and obvious and just perfect is the nose,” she said. “It looks like my husband’s.”