Before six-month-old Xavier D’Auteuil underwent a complicated heart surgery in Toronto last week, doctors had the chance to hold a 3D-printed replica of the boy’s heart in their hands and practice the procedure.

The innovative method has helped doctors at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children perfect the delicate surgeries and reduce mortality rates far below rates in Europe and across North America.

Congenital heart malformations are the most common birth defects worldwide, with about 40,000 babies in the U.S. and Canada born with the complications each year. Xavier, who was born outside Ottawa in July of 2016, has several problems with his heart, including a hole in his heart and multiple complications with his pulmonary artery, the veins around his heart.

“You see straightforward ones and complex ones, and Xavier was one of the most complex ones,” Dr. Glen Van Arsdell, the head of cardiovascular surgery at Sick Kids, told CTV News.

Using scans of Xavier’s heart, doctors created a detailed blueprint of the tiny organ and fed the information into a 3D printer. The machine then used layers upon layers of thin plastic to reproduce an identical plastic model.

For the boy’s doctors, the model offers an in-depth look at the heart’s smallest intricacies and gives them a chance to cut open the heart, analyze it and sew it back together. For Xavier’s parents, the model provides a little more peace of mind before the stressful procedure.

“Now they know exactly what they are going to do because they have seen the heart already without even opening his chest,” said Marie-Pierre D’Auteuil, Xavier’s mother.

The surgery was performed last Tuesday in Toronto by Van Arsdell and Dr. Gyaandeo Maharajh, a surgeon from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario who performed an earlier surgery on Xavier just after birth.

They say their analysis of the boy’s 3D model completely changed their surgical plan and helped them plot a new direction.

After five hours in the operating room, the surgery was a success.

“It was awesome to know they were prepared and they knew what they were doing," said D’Auteuil.

The boy was sent back home a week after the surgery, where he continues to recover. He is expected to undergo another surgery after he turns two.

A costly solution

The 3D models have helped reduce deaths from cardiac surgery at SickKids, according to data from Van Arsdell. Figures collected between 2000 and 2015 show that the mortality rate for two types of heart operations -- arterial switch and ventricular septal defects -- was at 1.7 per cent at SickKids.

That’s notably lower than the North American average (3.2 per cent) and the European average (6.2 per cent) in the same time frame.

The procedure may be successful, but it remains relatively expensive. Each 3D model costs about $500, and doctors often need several models to practice on before entering the operating room.

“If we can get the cost to $50 we can say, ‘Here are 20. Go practice on them,’” Van Arsdell said.

Van Arsdell says he wants the technology to become part of standard training for surgeons. He has started holding classes on the procedure for other surgeons around the world alongside his colleague, cardiac radiologist Dr. Shi Joon Yoo.

“I had to learn practicing on babies. Think about how much better it will be for future generations if we can have those surgeons learn how to operate on models instead of on babies,” he said.

With files from CTV National News medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip