When 16-month-old Garrett Peterson was born, his mom, Natalie, knew something was wrong. Out of nowhere, he would stop breathing and simply turn blue.
"When he got upset," she told NPR, "or even sometimes just with a diaper change, he would turn completely blue."
She later learned that Garrett's breathing troubles were caused by the cartilage in his windpipe, which was soft and weak—all due to a rare condition known as tracheobronchomalacia.
Remarkably, though, it wouldn't be long until she was put in touch with two experts working at the University of Michigan, who are doing amazing things (and we do mean amazing) with 3-D printers.
Biomedical engineer Scott Hollister and trachea specialist Dr. Glenn Green have teamed up to create impressively flexible splints that are helping babies born just like Garrett breathe on their own again. The pair developed the procedure for the first time last year, for a 6-month-old named Kaiba Gionfriddo, and have continued to make their computer-designed implants ever since. In the case of trachea implants like Garrett's, the splint opens up the windpipe enough to allow enough air to get in and dissolves on its own once the body itself has strengthened these areas and a splint is no longer needed.
But these 3-D creations aren't just helping kids breathe on their own—they're also being used to treat kids with skull deformities, and in some cases, to construct replacement appendages. And we may be seeing a lot more of this in years to come, since Hollister and Green note that the procedure is more cost-effective and convenient for parents.
As for the Petersons, they're over the moon with how successful Garrett's procedure was. "He's being more interactive and more alert, and reaching more for his toys," Garrett's dad, Jeff, told NPR in the same interview. "He's just starting to be more like a normal child."