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New technology creates three-dimensional images of unborn babies

January 30, 2001|By MARCY MISNER, Staff Writer

There's a new wave sweeping the field of obstetrics in the Imperial Valley lately — sound waves in the form of three-dimensional ultrasound images.

Expectant mothers have long played guessing games after they got ultrasound pictures taken of the babies inside them … asking themselves whose chin does the baby have? Is it a boy or a girl?

Expectant parents often hear anecdotes about how other parents saw little girls in their ultrasound images — until a bouncing baby boy was born to them.

Now, with help from three-dimensional images, expectant mothers (and fathers) can more clearly see the babies growing inside them and are starting the bonding process earlier.


Ultrasound technology was conceived in World War II to detect fractures in metal, but the concept of using ultrasound in the medical field wasn't born until the 1970s, according to local ultrasound technician Lee Meek, who works for obstetrician/gynecologists Kestutis Kuraitis and Masami Ogata in Brawley.

Meek, who commuted from San Diego twice times a week for two and a half years, recently moved to Brawley with her daughter Robin, 9, who attends Brawley Christian Academy.

Meek, born and raised in Vermont, started her career in radiology and went into the ultrasound field as it began in the 1970s with static pictures.

Within several years the ultrasound machines came to produce the first moving pictures, though picture quality was limited.

Meek attended the first-ever ultrasound course at Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her credentials from the national registry in 1979.

Meek and Dr. Stephen Gocke, an obstetrician/gynecologist who practices in El Centro, use new and improved ultrasound technology that produces three-dimensional images. The ultrasounds are not only used to examine unborn babies but to look at other soft tissues and organs, such as ovaries, ovarian cysts, the uterus, endometriosis, gall bladders, kidneys and more. Ultrasounds are used by other types of doctors to examine other soft parts of the body.

Gocke performs all his own ultrasounds, with help from his assistant, Mayela Ruiz. Gocke explained ultrasound imaging became widespread in the medical field in the United States in the mid-1980s. He warned that to provide the highest level of service, ultrasound technicians should be nationally registered and do ongoing education and training. State-of-the-art ultrasound machines can't substitute for good training.

"Just because you have a BMW doesn't mean you know how to drive it," Gocke said.

The fetus' heartbeat can first be seen around six weeks after conception.

Doctors examine the ultrasound images in determining the date the baby is due and can tell by the fetus' size and developmental stage how far along it is.

There are several types of three-dimensional ultrasound imaging. The type Meek uses is a composite made of 108 non-moving profile pictures.

The machine takes the leading- edge information of those 108 slices and turns them sideways to give a frontal view of the leading edge of all of those slices, Meek said.

Meek compared three-dimensional ultrasound imaging to a loaf of bread.

Pick up one slice and look at its broad side and that is comparable to two-dimensional ultrasound.

Take a 108-slice loaf of bread, pick the whole thing up and look at the top to see the three-dimensional view, she explained.

"The quality of the 3-D pictures is dependent on the baby's position and its holding still," and how far along mom is in her pregnancy, Meek said.

"If you can't get a good face picture on flat ultrasound, you're not going to get a good picture on 3-D," she said.

With soft jazz or Beatles music playing in the background, Meek uses ultrasound for tracking the pregnancy and to help determine a "due date."

Another ultrasound is done about mid-term in the 20th week of pregnancy to evaluate fetal well-being and all of the fetal organs, the maternal uterus, placenta, fluid and cervix.

For her purposes, Meek said she doesn't use the 3-D images to make a good diagnostic ultrasound picture, but it's helpful in more clearly seeing facial features or the spine, both rounded and easier to distinguish in 3-D.

"Our main focus for using top priority is for patients' enjoyment and bonding," Meek said.

When asked how accurate Meek is in being able to tell if it's a boy or a girl, Meek said she is 100 percent accurate because she won't guess if she can't see the baby's relevant parts.

"As far as being able to tell gender by ultrasound, there are only three possible choices, it's a boy, it's a girl or I don't know. There is no good acceptable excuse for a mistake.

"Because girl parts look like girl parts, boy parts look like boy parts and if you don't know what you're looking at, you shouldn't make an opinion. You shouldn't offer anything you should just let go of your ego and say I don't know," she said.

There are a variety of things that happen with a positive pregnancy test. Happily, most often a normal pregnancy follows the test result.

Gocke uses ultrasound to diagnose cleft palate, spina bifida and other birth defects and is convinced early intervention is important in treating the infant and coming to terms with the conditions.

Sometimes a miscarriage or blighted ovum will result before the fetus develops enough to detect defects. A miscarriage results when the fetus fails to thrive for some reason and the body expels the fetus.

"This is the body's way of correcting and protecting itself. Also not uncommon is "blighted ovum" where a chemical pregnancy occurs, but no fetus forms," Meek explained.

"I know it comforts some women to know when this is the case, rather than a ‘lost baby.' Many are the days of laughter and smiles but also are the times when we just put our arms around each other and cry. It is impossible for me to perform ultrasounds and remain uninvolved," Meek said.

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