A toy-like cardboard contraption that sells for less than $20 online has helped save the life of a baby who was so sick that doctors told her parents to take her home to die.
Google Cardboard looks like a set of big square goggles. Stick your iPhone inside and with the right app, you can see images in three-dimensional virtual reality.
Doctors at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami used the device to map out an operation they say they couldn’t have envisioned otherwise.
On Wednesday, four weeks after her surgery, baby Teegan was taken off a ventilator and is breathing on her own. Doctors expect her to go home within the next two weeks and make a full recovery.
“It was mind-blowing,” says Cassidy Lexcen, the baby’s mother. “To see this little cardboard box and a phone, and to think this is what saved our daughter’s life.”
Here’s how it was done:
Missing one lung and half a heart
Teegan Lexcen was born in August with a heart and lung defect so unusual that doctors had never seen it before. She has only one lung, and almost all of the left half of her heart is missing.
Her parents, Cassidy and Chad Lexcen, say their doctors in Minnesota told them there was nothing they could do. Soon after she was born, they sent her home with a hospice nurse and medications to make her as comfortable as possible.
When Teegan was still alive two months later, her parents wondered whether the doctors had been right. They started searching for a second opinion.
The Lexcens found out that a friend of a friend of a friend was a nurse in a cardiac intensive care unit in Boston. They made contact, and doctors asked them to send images of Teegan’s heart taken at the Minnesota hospital.
Elated, the Lexcens sent the images to Boston. Two weeks passed and they didn’t hear anything. Cassidy sent an email, politely reminding them that time was of the essence. She received an apologetic note back, saying there had been a communications glitch, and someone would get back to her soon.
The Lexcens knew that soon might not be soon enough. Teegan has a twin sister, Riley, who was growing steadily, while Teegan stayed tiny. It was a constant reminder of how poorly her heart was working.
“I felt like we were racing against the clock,” Cassidy said.
It was around that time that Chad’s sister found an article entitled “The 20 Most Innovative Pediatric Surgeons Alive Today.”
No. 3 was Dr. Redmond Burke, the chief of cardiovascular surgery at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami.
Chad’s sister reached out and heard back immediately. Please send images immediately, a nurse told her. We’ll see what we can do.
A broken 3-D printer comes to the rescue
Three times a week, 30 cardiac doctors and nurses sit in a room at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital and discuss the treatment road maps for their patients and for children who might become their patients.
“The arc of people’s lives get determined in these conferences,” Burke said.
On a Wednesday morning in November, they looked at pictures of Teegan’s heart.
Like the doctors in Minnesota, the doctors in Miami had never seen a child who was missing a lung and nearly half a heart. They threw out ideas about possible surgeries to help her. No one had a definitive plan. Some were skeptical that they could do anything.
Burke asked Dr. Juan Carlos Muniz, a pediatric cardiologist who specializes in imaging, to make a 3-D model of Teegan’s heart. It had helped in complicated cases before.
A few hours later, Muniz reported bad news: Their 3-D printer was broken. “Technology always goes on the fritz at the worst possible time,” he lamented.