da Vinci arms

The da Vinci surgical system let's surgeons preform procedures with more precision, flexibility and control. 

When you think of robotic surgery, you probably conjure up a mental image of a "Transformer” character with a scalpel. Or the "Star Wars" CP3O wearing a surgical mask. However, a more accurate sci-fi comparison might be "Fantastic Voyage," the 1966 film about a microscopic submarine and crew being injected into a human body.

Modern robotic surgery, in the hands of a skilled surgeon, can perform complex procedures with more precision, flexibility and control than is possible using conventional surgery. And because of the tiny incisions and precise surgery, patients experience less trauma to the body, minimal scarring and faster recovery time.

The da Vinci surgical system, made by Intuitive, is one of the most versatile robotic systems on the market. Earlier this week, a da Vinci robot was on display at Regional Health Rapid City Hospital’s dining room, in conjunction with a presentation by general surgeons, Patrick J. Kenney, D.O., FACS, and Matthew Wideroff, M.D. The contraption drew curious attention.

Dr. Kenney has been using the da Vinci robot for about six years, first in his practice in Atlanta and now at Regional Health Rapid City Hospital. He has performed surgery on stomachs, spleens, colons, adrenal glands and other parts of the body. He said da Vinci is especially useful in repairing hernias of all shapes and sizes.

"Any procedure that can be done laparoscopically can be done robotically," he said.

With the da Vinci system, surgeons make four incisions, each less than half an inch long. Through these openings, the da Vinci robotic arms enter the body. Three arms wield miniaturized surgical instruments, and the fourth arm holds a stereoscopic hi-definition camera.

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The surgeon runs the whole show from a console in the same operating room as the patient. With the responsive hand controls and 3-D viewing, the experience for the surgeon is somewhat like being inside the patient’s body. The da Vinci robot’s arms have the human equivalent of wrists, so they have a great deal of mobility inside the body, Dr. Kenney said.

So, will robotic surgery advance to the point that the surgeon doesn’t even need to be in the same city, let alone the same operating room, as the patient?

Dr. Kenney said surgical skill is still required to prepare the patient and position the probes inside the body. But he also noted that the technology grew out of NASA research into using robots to remotely perform surgery in space.

“I don’t know if it will ever get to that point, but it might happen someday,” he said.

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Managing editor

Chris Huber is the managing editor at the Rapid City Journal.