The Surgery Itself and a Tour of the Training Facility
The computer-controlled equipment that makes this minimally-invasive surgery possible
is called the da Vinci Surgical System® designed by Intuitive Surgical, Inc. The
robotic arms actually resemble hunting arrows – think bow-and-arrows. They're less
than 3/8" in diameter sort of like one of those big thick pencils they used to give
you to mark your SAT test answers or ballots back before somebody decided a hole
puncher or $500 PDA would be better than a 25¢ piece of ScanTron paper. They have
special tools at the end rather than the pierce point of an arrow.
If you can imagine, the robot arms slip in your side between the ribs and are maneuvered
over until they can reach what is needed at the heart, so they may stick in you 12"
or so. Browse through the site to see the equipment. The instrument at the end replicates
motions on the surgeon's hand. This appears to take time to learn, but in the hands
of a well-trained expert, it looks like a person's real hands are performing these
motions directly on the tissue, sutures, and instruments. I saw it and it was amazing.
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They can show this up on a projection screen for a team of interested surgeons to
observe. They can watch the monitoring equipment and the room overall.
This is all digitally captured and stored on hard drives, or can even be beamed around
the world on the network. These guys have not shied away from high-tech! To tour
the training facility and talk to the folks that ran it ultimately gave me great
confidence that indeed I had selected the best surgeon to perform my surgery, especially
on this advanced equipment.
Interestingly, the origins of this robotic surgery are in the military. The military
was interested in being able to remotely operate on wounded soldiers. Consider the
possibilities if they could operate on the soldier almost in the field or maybe in
a more sterile environment, but the doctor could be in a distant, safe, or even convenient
What’s the difference if the surgeon was even thousands of miles away? Well, maybe
you wouldn’t want your heart worked on with the surgeon’s motions being transmitted
across the Internet, but you can imagine some interesting possibilities if some kinks
were worked out. Apparently those sorts of dreams are what spurred people on to develop
these amazing robotic surgical tools.
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The Operating Theatre
A tour of the training facility was very interesting. This is where Dr. Chitwood's
team at East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine train other surgeons
to use the da Vinci robot for mitral valve surgery. http://chsc.med.ecu.edu/mitral
They showed us my very surgery on a projection screen. Very cool. It was fascinating
to watch and to see the deft and dexterity of Dr. Chitwood when using the tools.
After a couple minutes you realized that these were miniature robot hands not human
hands performing these feats yet they were being skillfully manipulated and seemed
to perfectly mimic the motion and fluidity of a human. Watching him tie knots in
sutures made you really appreciate his skill and experience.
They were supposed to send me some excerpts from the surgery, but never did – a big
disappointment. I'm thinking some lawyer spooked them. If you're wondering what your
heart valve looks like, I'll twist a popular phrase by saying "it looks like chicken".
The University uses this special facility to train other surgeons. It is in a separate
building from the operating theatre but is connected by fiber optic cable and they
can monitor all aspects of a surgery from across the street, live, with broadcast-quality
video. They capture the 3-dimensional video from the camera in your body that the
surgeon is using to see his work.
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