High-tech mask nixes procedure

The HeraldFebruary 22, 2009 

Connor McKemey has endured dozens of surgeries since he was burned in a December accident. But a new technology means he won't have to undergo one procedure normally required to make a mask designed to help his face heal.

The 13-year-old -- who suffered third-degree burns on his face -- will need to wear a clear compression mask for 14 months. The mask is designed to help his face heal and appear close to what it looked like before the burns, said Steve Kidd, president of Algona, Wash.-based CimMed.

Using aerospace technology, Kidd's company developed a portable laser that was used last week to measure Connor's face for the mask.

Connor wore his new mask, made of polycarbonate with a silicone lining, for the first time for an hour Friday, said his mother, Karin McKemey. He will be required to wear the mask 23 hours a day over the next 14 months, she said.

"They will work him up to it," she said of the time he will need to wear the mask.

Connor will only be allowed to take the mask off for bathing and eating, said Dr. Robert Mullins, a surgeon at the Joseph M. Still Burn Center in Augusta, Ga., where Connor remains in serious condition. He was burned before Christmas when an outdoor fireplace erupted at his parents' Tega Cay home.

In the past, the technique used to make a compression mask required patients to be taken to surgery and placed under anesthesia for up to six hours. An occupational therapist would cover the face with a gel used to make a mold.

Now, using a portable hand-held laser, a patient's face can be measured in minutes without putting them to sleep, said Bob Duffett, vice president of sales for CimMed.

Facial measurements obtained by the laser scanner and methods used to manufacture the mask are more precise than traditional manual methods and result in a near perfectly fitting mask, Kidd said. A mask that fits well is crucial to minimize scarring, Kidd said.

The mask is clear, which allows the therapist fitting the patient to see if the mask is applying the correct pressure to the face, he said. The pressure keeps the swelling down, which results in less scarring, Mullins said.

The clear mask also "gives them their personal identity," Duffett said. "It gives them the ability to have confidence again."

McKemey said Connor complained that wearing the mask was uncomfortable, but said he wants to tolerate it because he is anxious to do anything to go home.

Research has found the earlier a patient is treated with a compression mask, the better the results, Kidd said.

"We've seen patients in as little as two months with great recovery," he said.

The portable laser used to measure a face emits a red beam. It measures up to 300,000 areas per second. The data is sent to a laptop computer and an image of the face is generated. The data is e-mailed to the company's office in Washington where the mask is made and shipped to the hospital the next day, Duffett said.

The mask is fitted on the patient by an occupational therapist and held in place by straps across the back of the head, Kidd said. As the skin grafts heal and swelling decreases, patients must be re-measured for another mask, usually in about a month to ensure proper fit, Kidd said.

Although laser scanning technology has been used in the aerospace industry for years, CimMed has created a portable scanning device using the laser that can be brought to hospitals to measure a patient for a compression mask. In the past, if a doctor wanted a patient scanned for a mask, the patient would have to be flown to a hospital that had a scanner. Often burn patients were too sick to be transported early in their recovery, which is the optimal time for a mask. Now, the company can scan patients using the hand-held scanner or hospitals can purchase their own, so patients can begin mask therapy as soon as they are ready, Kidd said.

McKemey said she was thankful that the mask Connor is wearing is clear because she said it is more attractive than other masks she had heard about that "look like a ski mask."

As doctors wean Connor from pain medications, she said he is becoming more aware of his surroundings.

"He understands, he's upset, he's wrapping his head around the injuries," she said. "But I'm with him a lot more. I get there earlier and stay later."

On Monday, Connor will face his biggest surgery yet, the grafting of his legs, which were burned the most severely, McKemey said. Last week, he had several surgeries to prepare his legs for grafting, she said.

After Monday's surgery, he must remain still for 72 hours, she said.

"We've been trying to talk to him about that, and he seems to understand," she said. "We just keep praying."

Mary Jo Balasco * 803-329-4067

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