Grad student uses 3D printer to help surgeons aleve man's chronic pain

East Carolina grad student Joshua Bryce Stevens speaks with patient Franklin Arnold about the 3D printed replica of his chest that helped surgeons correct his chronic pain. (Ashley Boles/NewsChannel 12)

GREENVILLE, Pitt County - Imagine having chronic pain for your entire life, then finding out a 3D-printed version of your ribcage could be the key to letting doctors break that grip of pain.

That was the case for one Goldsboro man, who - thanks to a collaboration with the Brody School of Medicine, the College of Engineering and Technology and the Joyner Library at East Carolina University - is now pain free.

Franklin Arnold was born with a twisted spine. He had a surgery more than three years ago in an effort to fix the problem, but his pain only worsened.

"I wasn't probably sleeping no more than three hours a night and that's every night i was just up, up, up," he said.

He was forced to essentially live in a back brace that limited his ability to do everyday activities, such as talking evening walks with his wife and child. That all changed when he met ECU thoracic surgeon Dr. Carlos Anciano and cardiothoracic surgery fellow Dr. Preston Sparks, who set about the task of utilizing 3D printing to make Arnold's next surgery a success.

ECU grad student Joshua Bruce Stevens utilized 3D printing to rebuild Arnold's chest wall from a digital design. Utilizing MRI scans as a reference, a 3D version of Arnold's chest wall was created to allow surgeons to work out in detail in advance of the March 22 surgery how they would rebuild his chest wall using titanium mesh.

Building the replica was how Stevens spent his spring break.

"I'd rather do this than go out to the beach or anything," he said.

It made knowing exactly what moves to make significantly easier for the surgeons.

"Using this model in the operating room, we were looking back and forth between this model and his CT scan and the patient to try and figure out exactly what was causing the pain," Sparks said.

Since the surgery more than three months ago, Arnold's quality of life has greatly improved. And for Sparks, who is an active-duty army physician, the potential use of 3D printing for surgeries on wounded soldiers is an exciting new frontier.

"In the military when you're dealing with combat injuries you see unique problems all the time, so I think this can have a lot of application in dealing with the wounds soldiers suffer in combat," Sparks said.

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