Lumberton Middle School students had an opportunity to try out one of the most innovative and advanced computer-assisted surgical systems in the world Thursday, May 1, as they visited Christus-St. Elizabeth Hospital for an exclusive look at “Surgio,” the hospital’s sophisticated da Vinci Si robotic platform designed to expand surgeons’ capabilities and offer a state-of-the-art minimally invasive option for major surgeries.
Fourteen students from Lumberton Middle School robotics class learned how surgeons control Surgio’s arms with telemanipulators through joystick-like devices and foot pedals and how the da Vinci enhances surgeons’ capabilities. Guiding the lesson were Beaumont urologist Dr. Steven Socher; Matt Amos, senior clinical representative for Intuitive Surgical, the designer and manufacturer of the da Vinci; and surgical robotics clinical coordinator Michele Stone.
“This machine has a lot of advantages. During a surgery, it is very difficult to see inside the body. With this … you can see better,” Socher told the students, referring to the system’s high definition, three-dimensional video. “It is also somewhat of an improvement over our hands. When surgeons get older, they get shaky hands,” he said. “This robot actually takes that shake out of the hands. It’s almost as if the robot is operating on (the patient), but … it is still a human doing it. This only does what we tell it to do. When you start using it, you’ll see you are in total control.”
Each student had a chance to sit in the surgeon’s console and try his or her hand — or the robot’s hand, that is — at picking up small rubber bands, manipulating them throughout the test field.
“It’s actually really simple to move,” said eighth-grader James Newmas, who wants to be an engineer. “It’s really neat, but it feels different afterwards, moving your actual hands after moving the robot’s hands. It’s like a really high-tech video game.”
Seventh-grader Hannah Alexander said if she had to choose whether to perform a surgery with traditional surgical instruments or the da Vinci, the answer is elementary.
“With the robot you can spin (the hand). If you did it with your hand, you may have a place where you need to spin it but you can’t,”Alexander said, referring to the robot’s 360-degree, wrist-like rotations. “If we just use our hands and don’t use the robot, it might be more difficult.”
Robotics and mathematics teacher Karen Glenn said Lumberton Middle School has offered a robotics club for the past 10 years, but 2013-14 was the first school year an actual robotics class was offered to students. In the class, students build and use Lego Mindstorm NXTs and EV3s, Glenn said.
“They learn how to make the robots respond to sound, touch, distance — using an ultrasonic sensor and light,” she said. “They solve problems and simulate tasks like in the real world. For instance, I built a makeshift cave, and they would go in there and take readings, come out and display them. We watch a lot of videos and read a lot of articles about real life robots. We actually read about the da Vinci robot, and we’re grateful to St. E for setting this up. This is such a great experience for them.”
The students, some of whom recently competed in state competition with their robots, also had an opportunity to meet 55-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Ruben Victores, who advocated for the hospital to purchase the approximately $2 million da Vinci Si. Victores was one of the first surgeons in Southeast Texas to use the system and the first Christus-associated surgeon to perform 50 operations with the da Vinci robot. The hospital presented Victores with a plaque May 1 prior to the students’ visit to commemorate the milestone.
“For hundreds of years, we used to do hysterectomies either with a vertical incision or a transverse incision,” Victores said. “The recuperation was longer, and the incisions were not particularly pretty. Now, as I did yesterday, we are doing the single-site surgery through one small incision in the belly button … cosmetically, a lot nicer because there’s really no scar.”
What are the advantages to single-site surgery with the da Vinci? Several, Victores said.
“The recuperation is really the key,” he said. “Instead of being out of work for four to six weeks, most patients are going back to work within one to two weeks. The pain level is significantly less; the patients require much, much fewer narcotics, an added benefit to the patient. Less drugs, less side effects from those medications.”
Victores, who has practiced medicine for more than 23 years in Beaumont, realized — after speaking to some of the parents of the Lumberton students that had come along for the field trip to St. Elizabeth with their children — that, as an OB/GYN, it wasn’t the first time he had met the students. Some of them he had actually met before — in the delivery room.
“It was a very neat experience,” he said of the discovery.
Victores said that it is not only important to stimulate these students’ interest in the medical field, as they are perhaps future doctors and surgeons, but it is also crucial to introduce them to innovations such as the da Vinci to encourage their creativity, something needed in the field of robotic engineering and other career fields.
“The goal in my mind is to pass your interests forward,” Victores said. “I am glad we actually have some kids who are interested in science.”
“I think it helps them decide what they want to do in the future,” Glenn added, regarding the students’ opportunity to use the da Vinci system. “It gives them some options. They get a real experience of what it’s like to do the things they might want to do. It’s very different reading about it in a textbook than actually seeing it. They may be the next to develop this (technology). It’s great for them to be exposed to it.”