How can sculpture save a baby's life?

If it looks like a fetus, flexes like a fetus, and shows up on ultrasounds like a fetus, what is it?

If you’re a surgeon-in-training, then it just might be an incredibly accurate medical model created by OCAD University sculptor and researcher Francis LeBouthillier.

LeBouthillier has spent more than a decade becoming an expert in a highly unusual combination of research areas: materials science, fetal abnormalities, foundry techniques, laparoscopic surgical procedures, and more.

“I made part of that fetus on my lathe,” he says, pointing at one of his prototypes. A self-described “machine fetishist,” his 750 ft2 studio is crammed with sheet metal shears, press drills, welding equipment, degassers, rubber and binding agents and other tools required to make finely detailed, three-dimensional models for surgical simulations.

Since his first medical job – creating two full-term fetuses for use at the Surgical Skills Lab at the University of Toronto – LeBouthillier has progressed toward increasingly complex models that have allowed doctors in many countries to master intricate life-saving operations.

“Doctor Rory Windrim at Mount Sinai approached me to do a 28 week-old fetus model that involved building the larynx and full airway,” LeBouthillier says. The model is used to practice a procedure to treat a condition called “diaphragmatic hernia.” In this congenital condition, the fetal diaphragm doesn’t fully form, causing the stomach to expand into the chest cavity and prevent the lungs from developing.

Surgeons used LeBouthillier’s model to practice a mindboggling operation, moving surgeons’ tools into the fetus’s mouth, past the larynx, and down the throat, inserting a tiny barrier – a fluid-filled balloon smaller than a pea – that allows the lungs to develop.

LeBouthillier has become part of a medical team whose advances have already saved many babies’ lives.

“I feel very lucky to have these skills to do this work,” he says. His research continues, exploring new possibilities including using computer-assisted 3D modeling to allow even greater precision, and retooling to create affordable training models for developing nations.

**Major funders for this research include Dean’s Fund, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and Mount Sinai Hospital Network for Excellence in Simulation.

Francis Lebouthillier

Francis LeBouthillier

OCAD University

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