A robot’s arms and a surgeon’s hands

Scott Liles, Baxter Bulletin
Published 9:12 p.m. CT Jan. 24, 2020 | Updated 9:15 p.m. CT Jan. 24, 2020


Some recent visitors to Baxter Regional Medical Center got some first-hand experience piloting a surgical robot like one used in the hospital’s operating rooms.

The hospital recently purchased a da Vinci Xi surgical system, and the robot’s manufacturer, Intuitive Surgical, had a floor model on display in the hospital’s lobby on Tuesday.

The da Vinci system is designed to assist in a variety of minimally invasive procedures using four miniature robotic arms controlled by a surgeon at a console panel. The arms can perform many of the tasks of a surgeon, including grasping items, holding objects or wielding a scalpel or other medical instrument.

Despite being called a medical robot, the da Vinci is no R2-D2; it requires a human operator to control its actions. Surgeons use two hand controls to manipulate the robotic arms, and various foot pedals control things like which arm is in use and the zoom of the miniature camera that serves as the robot’s eyes once inside the human body.

“My hands are larger than a robot arm. There’s a lot of spaces where even though I can do the same things with my hands that the robot arm can do, my hands just won’t fit,” said Dr. Robert McCurdy, one of BRMC’s general surgeons. “The staplers can’t fit, certain instruments can’t fit, but a robot can. It’s really allowed us to do some things much differently than we were.”

Being able to perform surgery using smaller incisions means less pain for the patient and a quicker recovery time, McCurdy said. A reduction in pain means less patients on pain medication, he said.

“It’s revolutionized surgeries that were very difficult to do in a very small space,” McCurdy said. “Instead of having large operations with large incisions, you can now have large operations with small incisions.”

Visitors operating the da Vinci Xi system on Tuesday could try and pick up small items like a penny or grasp plastic rings and move them from place to place.

“I just thought the technology was incredible,” said Meagan Beck, a Mountain Home High School senior and a student intern at the hospital. “We’re doing simple tasks, and they’re doing actual surgeries.”

The hospital’s da Vinci Xi robot was first used in the OR last week and is the second surgical robot used at BRMC. The hospital purchased a da Vinci Si, a forerunner to the current Xi model, in 2011.

“We will still keep the Si for some of the traditional surgeries that are done, but this will give us a wider range and actually allow us to do two surgeries since we’ll have two robots,” hospital president/CEO Ron Peterson said.

Peterson tried his hand at operating the Xi system on display Tuesday but did not have much success with it.

“There’s a reason you want a surgeon operating on you and not a hospital administrator,” he quipped.

McCurdy said using the da Vinci surgical robots were more intuitive than using a traditional laparoscope.

“When they started laparoscopic surgery 30-40 years ago, there was a steep learning curve there,” he said. “It’s not like operating with your hands. It’s on a camera, and the instruments don’t move like your hands move. Learning to use a robot, it’s hands or arms move similar to yours, so I would argue that the learning curve to do some of the procedures robotically is easier to learn than laparoscopically.”

Peterson said the hospital paid almost $2 million “on the penny” for its new da Vinci Xi robot. That price included the robot, the software associated with it and the attached surgical bed, which can be rotated to provide better working angles for the robotic arms.

“Two million dollars, that’s a big price tag in my mind, but it really shows the commitment to providing the same level of patient care that is offered anywhere else in the country right here in Mountain Home,” McCurdy said. “In a large city, there’s quite a bit of robots. But for small communities to have them, there’s definitely not that many around the United States. For this hospital to have not one but two robots is pretty revolutionary. I would argue there’s not many places like that.”

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