Back in 2013, Californian 3D graphic artist Michael Balzer took it upon himself to intervene in the treatment of his wife’s brain tumour, and saved her sight in the process.
Pamela Shavaun Scott, Balzer’s wife, discovered after an MRI scan in August 2013 that she had a brain tumour, positioned behind her left eye. Neurologists claimed that such a growth was common amongst women – nothing to be too concerned about – and suggested having a follow-up scan in a year.
Balzer was unconvinced, and sought the advice of the best doctors in the country. The neurologists Balzer sent the MRI results to agreed that Scott would require surgery. The proactive Balzer researched possible treatments for his wife. He settled on Center for Robotic Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, where surgeon-controlled robotic arms use micro-movements to perform delicate operations.
Balzer requested Scott’s DICOM files (the digital format for MRI scan data) and used his expertise in 3D imaging to to convert them into a 3D model of his wife’s skull, complete with tumour. “I thought, ‘why don’t we take it to the next level?’” Balzer said. “Let’s see what kind of tools are available so that I can take the DICOMs, which are 2D slices, and convert them into a 3D model.”
Using the digital 3D creation he had formed, Balzer created a physical facsimile of Scott’s head with a 3D printer. After showing this model to neurosurgeons, it became feasible to avoid the usual high-risk method of operation – cracking the skull and lifting the brain to reach the tumour – and instead enter Scott’s skull with a micro-drill through the top of her eye cavity.
The operation was a success: Scott’s tumour was removed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in May 2014. During surgery, the neurologist discovered that the tumour had started to entangle the optic nerve to Scott’s left eye. If she’d waited a year, as initially advised, she would have suffered damage to the nerve, possibly losing her sight. The procedure took eight hours, with 95% of the tumour removed. The scar above Scott’s left eyelid is barely visible.