Meet Dr. Robot

Youngster names a new 'surgeon' and gets a close look

October 26, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Baltimore Sun

Sarah Price may have had her scrubs on, but she was not prepared to operate. The 6-year-old who won a contest to name the new surgical robot at Baltimore Washington Medical Center in Glen Burnie shook her head vigorously from side to side when the nurse asked her if she wanted to practice using "Poppy".

The nurses soon coaxed Sarah to climb into the chair, peer through the viewfinder and thread her thumbs and index fingers through the loops on the fingertip controls. By pinching her fingers together and moving her wrists, she could manipulate the tiny clippers on the arms of the $1.7 million robot to grab rubber loops and place them on small rubber cones.

Sarah said she chose the name Poppy because the robot's arms "pop out to make sick people better." She smiled when Arkaime Kess, the hospital's robotics coordinator, showed her the plastic sign doctors will put on the door when they are operating. It reads, "Poppy in progress."

Sarah was one of three finalists in the naming contest offered to students at nearby Glen Burnie Park Elementary School. Of the 360 students, more than half participated and sent entries to the principal. The other two finalists were fellow first-grader Aspen Teter and third-grader Matthew Young. The event was meant to showcase the hospital's high-tech addition, but school officials said it also showed the three students a possible career field.

"Look how talented they are," said Principal Brenda Care, as each student took turns on the machine. "I'm very impressed, and who knows, maybe one of them will be operating on us in the future."

It also gave the teachers a chance to give the students another lesson: Hospitals don't have to be feared, said Beth Jones, Sarah's first-grade teacher. Sarah got to wear her oversized scrubs when she told her class later that morning what she did.

"I think that they think it's a scary place," said Jones, who came along on the trip to the hospital.

Although the medical center is the first to buy a high-definition da Vinci Surgical System in the Baltimore area, many hospitals have been using earlier versions of the system for several years. For example, Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis bought its system two years ago.

The machine comprises a control booth of sorts where doctors sit and manipulate the arms using the fingertip controls. Foot pedals adjust the camera and move the robotic arms in and out of the patient. The doctor looks through a view finder to see a 3-D image projected by cameras inserted inside the patient.

Doctors perform the surgery remotely in the booth. The operating table is several feet away.

The robotic system will be used for gynecologic, thoracic and urologic procedures at first, but other departments will begin using the equipment as more doctors get used to using the equipment, said Dr. Alice Tsao, a urologist who operates at BWMC.

Robotic systems are expensive, but they allow surgeons to improve upon a practice known as minimally invasive surgery. In this kind of surgery, doctors use small cameras and long, thin metal instruments to operate within key-hole size incisions. This reduces bleeding, pain and recovery time, said Dr. Eric Schwartz, another urologist at the medical center.

Without a robotic arm, doctors cannot maneuver the tiny tools at the end of their instruments, limiting what types of surgery they can do, Tsao said. "I call it operating with chopsticks as opposed to your hand or your wrist," she said. The da Vinci system is better because it mimics the wrist-like movements of the hand and allows doctors greater precision and mobility, she and Schwartz said.

"This has taken prostate surgery from a big, open procedure to a camera procedure," Schwartz said.

The first procedure for the robot was scheduled Thursday, so the naming event was announced the day before. The hospital's marketing department whittled the list of names to three, and the operating room nurses picked the winning name. Each finalist received a bag and cup with the medical center logo, as well as a children's book about robots. Sarah got a bonus: the Tri-Bot Talking Robot - a remote-controlled toy that tells jokes.

Aspen, 6, submitted "Dr. Rob BaWaBot" as her entry. She said the "Ba" was for Baltimore and the "Wa" was for Washington. That her suggestion wasn't chosen didn't dampen Aspen's enthusiasm. She climbed into the chair to operate the robotic arms. She got down and jumped up and down.

"I want to do it again," Aspen said.

Matthew, 8, wanted to name the robot, JTC 2000, because the robot is "just too cool." Of the three students, he was the only one whose feet almost reached the pedals of the machine.

"It's neat," Matthew said, as he took off his scrubs at the end of the visit.

As she left the medical center, Sarah said she knew exactly what she was going to write about in her class journal.

"That I went to the hospital today, and I won," she said.

how it works

Using the da Vinci Surgical System, the surgeon operates while seated at a console viewing a 3-D image of the surgical field. The surgeon's fingers grasp master controls below the display, with hands and wrists naturally positioned relative to his or her eyes. The system translates the surgeon's hand, wrist and finger movements into precise, real-time movements of surgical instruments inside the patient. The system is manufactured by Intuitive Surgical, a Sunnyvale, Calif., company.

Source: Baltimore Washington Medical Center

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