The day after Nelly Divricean gave birth to twin sons Andrew and Patrick, doctors gave her terrible news: one of her tiny, premature babies was in serious trouble.
"Something's wrong," the doctors told her. "We think Patrick has a blockage. We need to move him to a different hospital."
A blockage somewhere inside Patrick's intestines was preventing him from moving his bowels. Doctors needed to fix it before his intestines ruptured and he died.
Weighing just 4 pounds, Patrick was too small for a major surgery that could solve the problem permanently, so doctors moved him from Salt Lake City's Intermountain Medical Center to nearby Primary Children's Medical Center, where a section of his intestines was temporarily diverted into a colostomy bag.
"Because he couldn't poop, they had to make a way," Divricean said.
A few months later, Divricean and her husband, Michael, brought Patrick back to his surgeon, Dr. Eric Scaife.
"OK, what do we do next?" she asked him.
Scaife took an X-ray and what he saw wasn't good. A thin, hard membrane was blocking a section of Patrick's intestines -- the result of a rare birth defect called rectal atresia that occurs in one out of every 5,000 babies.
"We need to remove it," the doctor told the couple.
Scaife described to Patrick's worried parents a long, technically difficult surgery. Patrick would be cut open through his abdomen and vertically along his tailbone. Once inside, Scaife would remove the membrane and then piece together two sections of intestines.
He had his concerns. It was a big operation on a little baby. The surgery might cause scarring, or it might injure nerves in Patrick's pelvis that could lead to incontinence.
If Patrick was Scaife's son, what would he do? Divricean asked the surgeon.
Scaife told her he'd think on it and give them an answer the next week.
"Hopefully, they'll come up with something that will save Patrick or will give us a better option at least," Divricean thought as she waited for the week to pass.
A better option
A week later, Scaife had an idea.
Instead of removing Patrick's blockage, he wanted to break through it -- with two powerful magnets.
In the hands of children, strong magnets have proven dangerous, even deadly. When swallowed, they've passed into the intestines, and their attraction to each other has forged a hole in tissues.
It occurred to Scaife that in the skilled hands of a surgeon, magnets might be a useful tool instead of a hazard. If he placed a magnet on either side of Patrick's blockage, their attraction might make a hole and destroy the membrane, allowing stool to pass.
Scaife's idea was untested and unproven -- but if it worked, Patrick wouldn't need surgery.
"A magnet's a wonderful thing," said Dr. R. Adam Noel, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Louisiana State University Heath Science Center in New Orleans. "They can be used in very clever medicine."
Surgeons have used magnets to bore drainage holes in intestinal tissue, lengthen the esophagus and straighten dips in chests.
For Scaife's idea to work, he would need to find the perfect magnets. They had to be strong enough not to slip off the membrane and sized just right to create the hole.
"I'm not quite sure how we get them," he told the couple.
So the Divriceans went shopping.