Looking inside a tiny heart to fix a big problem

DALLAS – Feb. 5, 2020 – When Haley and Zachary Sanders had their first baby, Rowan, and learned she had multiple heart defects, they were shattered. They never imagined technology borrowed from video games would help save their baby’s life.

“The goal of using virtual reality is to create an immersive environment where we can get in-depth information about a patient’s anatomy prior to surgery,” says Animesh (Aashoo) Tandon, M.D., M.S., one of the innovators behind the new tool.

The assistant professor of pediatrics for UT Southwestern Medical Center and pediatric cardiologist at Children’s Medical Center Dallas has been developing and refining virtual reality software over the past two years to address complex congenital heart defect cases like Rowan’s.

According to the American Heart Association, out of 1,000 births, at least eight babies will have some form of congenital heart defect. 

Rowan’s case was extreme. She was born with a large hole in her heart. To make matters worse, her heart was not connected correctly, and the two main arteries carrying blood out of her heart were near the wrong pumping chamber. She also suffered from a narrowing of the aorta and pulmonary stenosis, a condition that restricts blood flow from the lower right chamber to the pulmonary arteries, which deliver blood to the lungs. 

“You can’t really prepare for sending your baby into the operating room where they will stop her heart,” admits Rowan’s father. “You just hope and pray while the surgeon works on your little baby. Knowing that the doctors could find more information with this virtual reality tool than a normal scan would find – this gave us greater peace of mind.”

Tandon and his colleague, Tarique Hussain, M.D., Ph.D., collaborated with computer scientists at the University of Texas at Dallas to create the specialized software system. It takes three-dimensional imaging data and then pumps out models of patient-specific anatomy – in this case a model of Rowan’s heart that physicians could virtually step inside.

Outfitted with a special virtual reality headset and using hand controls to “steer” through the heart, Rowan’s cardiac surgeon, Camille Hancock Friesen, M.D., studied Rowan’s heart from multiple angles, became familiar with its intricacies, and uncovered with extreme specificity what fixes were needed. This better prepared her and her team for what they would see in the operating room.

The use of virtual reality for surgical planning is evolving. Tandon and Hussain are pushing the field forward by bringing more medical technology into pediatrics and pediatric cardiology. Tandon serves on the American Heart Association’s (AHA) Center for Health Tech and Innovation Advisory Group and is that group’s liaison to the AHA Young Hearts Council, which focuses on pediatric cardiology. He’s currently researching wearable biosensors and how to predict adverse events in children, in addition to imaging and virtual reality.

Tandon and Hussain are leaning heavily on their experience in 3D printing to specifically customize software for some of the most complicated heart surgeries. Their technology now holds promise for other types of high-risk surgeries involving other organs. Ultimately, they hope that using virtual reality will reduce mortality, the number of complications, and the length of procedures.

Rowan is a prime example of what virtual reality in medicine can make possible. She has frequent follow-up doctor visits, but otherwise is focused on all the typical infant milestones and achievements: teething, crawling, and trying new foods. Her family is looking forward to celebrating Rowan’s second birthday in July.

“Every kid’s heart is slightly different,” says Tandon. “This is truly personalized medicine.”

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution’s faculty has received six Nobel Prizes, and includes 22 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 17 members of the National Academy of Medicine, and 14 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators. The full-time faculty of more than 2,500 is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide care in about 80 specialties to more than 105,000 hospitalized patients, nearly 370,000 emergency room cases, and oversee approximately 3 million outpatient visits a year.