LOS ANGELES (KABC) --The use of 3-D printer technology is in widespread use these days, but doctors at Children's Hospital Los Angeles have found a unique use: printing out a human heart valve.
Surgeons used that 3-D model to help navigate inside the heart of then-1-week-old Nate Yamane as the vital organ struggled to keep him alive.
"He was actually born with no true blood vessels to feed his lungs. Without that you get no oxygen in your lungs and you die," said Dr. Frank Ing, chief of cardiology at Children's Hospital.
According to Ing, in order to survive, Nate's body created other pathways to get around the blockage. The doctor compared it to navigating L.A. traffic.
"In order for the cars to get to their destination, they just get off the exit and find ways to get back to where they need to go," Ing said.
But those alternate routes can't stay open indefinitely. The now-19-month-old went through five surgeries to rebuild and rewire his heart.
During the baby's most recent procedure, Ing was able to practice with the help of a 3-D printed version of Nate's newly constructed pulmonary artery.
"It's one thing to look at pictures, another thing to have something that's a real size and look at in different angles and the shapes and try to figure out what's the best modification," the cardiologist said.
Nate's right artery had narrowed. Without a model, Ing had to improvise in the operating room to make the tiny stent fit.
With the 3-D model, however, Ing said he was "able to create this stent to fit his anatomy and be able to deliver it and have confidence that it's going to work."
The boy's father, Wayne Yamane, described the reassurance he felt due to the technology.
"It gave me a secure feeling that at least the route that we are going is going to be a more successful one," he said.
Two weeks after surgery, Nate's mother said the difference in her son's energy level was like night and day.
"He's all over the place," Courtney Yamane said. "It's awesome. He's got the strength to roll across the whole room now."
Ing predicted more heart surgeons will take advantage of 3-D printing to help guide them through unique anatomic structures.
As for Nate, his mother said he was finally strong enough to take his first baby steps.