Jeff Sturges

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It's not the fall that kills you, it’s the sudden stop at the end" - Douglas Adams

 

A little over 17 years ago, I jumped off of a 35-foot cliff intending to land in a pool of water below.

 

I missed.

 

It was 1998, and I was a junior at a liberal arts college in Vermont.  I had just finished my final exams for the year, and I was excited to join a group of fellow high-sensation-seeking friends for an afternoon of outdoor adventure.  The chosen spot for that day was the Falls of Lana, a mountainside series of waterfalls that led to a pool of water. While most visitors were content with hiking to the area, exploring the waterfalls, and cooling off in the pool, others, including myself, were excited about the risky idea of jumping off of the various mountain rock outcroppings into the water below. That day, my appetite for risk caught up with me.

 

On my 4th jump of the day, at the highest point that I had yet attempted, I lost my footing.  I fell sideways off the side of the cliff, missed the pool, and instead landed on a rocky creek bed...face first.  I broke my jaw in two places, shattered many of my teeth, and suffered various other flesh wounds.  But it was the "short stop at the end" that caused the most damage.  The violent shift of my internal organs upon impact caused my aorta to tear, which resulted in heavy internal bleeding.  Fortunately I made it to a major hospital in time for life-saving aortic graft surgery.  A week later, I was out of the hospital.  A month later, I was jogging around my neighborhood.  17 years later, I am physically active and feeling terrific.

 

Earlier this year while attending the Washington DC National Maker Faire, I met the passionate members of 3D Print For Health.  I was fascinated by their multi-color, multi-density, multi-translucency-level prints of various parts of the human anatomy designed to assist in the understanding of not only the various functions of the body and its many parts, but also the effects of injuries, disease, substance abuse, etc.  I mentioned that I had recently completed a CT scan of my aorta, and the 3D Print For Health team members informed me that a 3D printed model could be created from my CT scan.  Awesome!  In the past, none of the CT or MRI images that I had seen offered me a picture of my aorta that was easy to comprehend, so I was excited about the idea of holding and examining an actual size model of my aorta in my own hand.

 

A few weeks later, my 3D printed aorta arrived in the mail.  It is a life-size print, so it was quite strange holding an object in my hand that is the actual size of the repaired organ inside my body.  As I examined the aorta, turning it around to view it in multiple orientations, I began to think about my accident, the impact, and how and where my aorta would have stretched to the point of tear.  It was both fascinating and terrifying.  In addition, I thought about how challenging it must have been for the surgeons to access and repair such a delicate and complex organ.  The surgery was performed by making a large incision into the side of my torso, lifting up my rib cage to gain access my aorta, and inserting a dacron graft inside of it.  Needless to say, this seems like an incredibly tight space for the surgical repair of such a critical organ.  And here I was holding a model of my aorta in my hand.  The surgeons did not have this luxury, yet the procedure was successful, and I am alive and well.  Even as I write this, looking over at my 3D printed aorta sitting on my table, it is difficult to conceptualize the function, strength, and importance of this vital organ.  It gives me a new appreciation for the complexity and the ingenuity of the human body and its relative fragility, but also the astonishing advances in various healthcare technologies that enable us to live healthier and happier lives.  Without these tools and technologies, I would not be alive today.

 

I wonder how many lives might be improved, or even saved, by using 3D printing in healthcare?