Making rare operations common through special effects simulation

What if I told you that there was a new technology that improved outcomes for patients of all ages, reduced pain and suffering, reduced time in the operating room, reduced anesthetic times and, the more you did it, the better it benefited patients. And here’s the kicker — it has no side effects. And it’s available everywhere care is delivered.”

That’s what critical care physician Peter Weinstock, MD, PhD, described at his recent TEDx talk in the Boston suburb of Natick.

Weinstock is director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Simulator Program, SIMPeds. The technology is ultra-high-fidelity medical simulation coupled with a simple concept: practicing before game time.

I mean really practicing.

Working with Hollywood special effects artists, Weinstock and his team have taken neurosurgeons treating hydrocephalus from doing practice “seed-ectomies” on peppers to operating on pulsating, bleeding brain and skull models, complete with ultra-realistic hair.

In the high-risk hydrocephalus operation, surgeons must drain excess brain fluid by punching a small hole in a membrane near a vital brain artery — faithfully reproduced in the model. Until now, most surgeons haven’t had access to good training in guiding the scope.

Another example, one of Weinstock’s own patients, was a baby diagnosed prenatally with congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH). A hole in her diaphragm caused her intestines to press into her chest cavity, choking off her lungs. She would need life-saving surgery immediately after birth.

“Here’s the problem,” Weinstock said. “These disorders are rare. Even in the best hands in the world, there is still a challenge to get [enough] volume of these patients to get the expertise curve at 100 percent. They just don’t present that often.”

The baby with CDH was born at 3 a.m. Her life-size model was ready. “At 2 o’clock in the morning, we assembled the team,” said Weinstock. “We took the reproduced anatomy that we had gained out of scans and images, brought that team — the same team that would operate on this child in the hours ahead — to a simulated bedside and had them do the procedure.”

Learn more about SIMPeds and its partnership with special effects company Fractured FX.