Barely out of the womb, newborn Teegan Lexcen was given a death sentence. She was born with one lung and little more than half a heart, a defect so unusual that doctors told her parents that there was nothing to be done. They sent her home with her parents and a hospice nurse to make her first and final days as comfortable as possible.
Teegan, however, was a fighter. Two months later, she was still alive, and her parents wanted a second opinion. They sent images of Teegan’s heart to Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami. To visualize Teegan’s complicated condition, Dr. Redmond Burke, the hospital’s chief of cardiovascular surgery, asked for a 3-D model of Teegan’s heart. (3-D printing is revolutionizing surgery by giving doctors exact replicas of patient’s organs, so they can plan surgeries down to the millimeter.) There was only one problem: The 3-D printer wasn’t working. And since Teegan was getting weaker daily, time was of the essence.
That’s when Dr. Juan Carlos Muniz, a pediatric cardiologist who specializes in imaging at the hospital, turned to Google Cardboard. The viewers — which are basic cardboard boxes with a viewing pane, and which retail for about $20 — can be used with a free app on any smartphone to create virtual reality.
Muniz put the images of Teegan’s heart on his phone and used an app to render them 3-D, then showed them to Burke. It turned out to be an even better technological option. While 3-D printing would have given Burke a model of Teegan’s heart, Google Cardboard went a step further, enabling Burke and his team to almost step into Teegan’s chest cavity. Able to view the heart and its placement in her rib cage from every angle, the team at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital figured out a way to save Teegan’s life.
Having planned the surgery in virtual reality, the doctors were able to make a precise incision tailored exactly to Teegan’s unique biology and rebuild her heart with in an innovative way so that it could function long-term. Now, 30 days after her surgery, Teegan is recovering in the hospital and “getting stronger every day,” according to Burke.
At first glance, Google Cardboard seems mostly like a toy to make games more immersive. But Teegan’s story shows that it could also have the potential to save lives. Without the access provided by Google Cardboard, doctors wouldn’t have been able to plan the surgery in such detail, possibly leading to life-threatening complications in the operating room — if they were able to envision a plan of treatment at all.
In addition to giving doctors greater virtual access than 3-D printing, Google Cardboard is even simpler and cheaper — and thus could revolutionize tricky surgeries around the world, where childbirth is deadly for both mothers and children. Three million babies die in their first 4 weeks every year due to lack of medical care.
Smart inventions that make good care less expensive can drastically reduce that number. In Nepal, for example, simply using a “miracle gel” to prevent umbilical cord infections has helped reduce infant mortality by 34 percent. And a car mechanic in Argentina recently invented a plastic bag that can stop babies from getting stuck in the birth canal, a complication during childbirth that can end up killing mothers and babies alike.
It remains to be seen what other medical problems Google Cardboard can help solve. But it has the potential to be an incredibly powerful tool — and one that Burke is still marveling at.
“It was the most elegant thing I’d seen in decades,” he told the New York Daily News. “It was extremely simple.”