Smithfield Herald

Johnston Medical Center touts mechanized surgical equipment

Alison Dacey, background, tries the machine out for the first time.
Alison Dacey, background, tries the machine out for the first time.

Women at Johnston Medical Center’s latest “Ladies’ Night” lined up for the chance to play surgeon.

The women were trying out a surgical device that allows doctors to perform complex procedures from behind a computer console. But instead of cutting open patients, the women picked up paper clips, dollar bills and packs of gum.

The da Vinci surgical system is sometimes mistakenly called a “robotic” instrument. But it’s actually a computerized surgical aid: A surgeon controls a set of the mechanized arms from behind a console.

The attached cameras allow them to look closely at what they’re operating on. The ends of each arm hold tiny instruments that allow surgeons to work in tighter spaces

On Thursday, Intuitive Surgical, the company that makes the machine, allowed attendees to try the da Vinci for themselves. From behind the console, the women used handheld controls that corresponded to the machine’s arms. At the end of each arm was a set of clamps they used to pick up objects.

“It’s pretty cool – it’s kind of like a video game but with lives in the balance,” said Dr. Mike Stine, a gynecologist at the hospital.

The machine is extremely useful for any procedure involving laparoscopy, or a small incision through the abdomen, Stine said. These procedures have become a popular alternative to larger, more invasive incisions.

Stine said the machine makes laparoscopy – traditionally done with manual tools – much easier. “It has stopped me from opening up many patients,” he said.

Stine has completed more than 100 procedures with the da Vinci surgical system, including hysterectomies, removal of ovaries and the removal of cysts. With the aid of the machine, he can perform surgeries that are much less invasive than traditional procedures.

“She stays in the hospital maybe five hours, and then she’s back in her own room at home,” he said of the typical patient.

The machine has a variety of other uses, Stine said, including intestinal resections and surgeries on prostates and gallbladders.

In order to qualify with the machine, surgeons must go through training with Intuitive. The training concludes with actual surgery on pigs to test the doctors’ proficiency.

Another gynecologist, Dr. Jennifer Mock, said she hopes to undergo the training as soon as the hospital allows her. Mock said she’s seen what the machine is capable of and wants her patients to benefit.

“This (allows) a smaller incision so the patient can get back to their work and life with quicker recovery time and shorter hospitalization stay,” she said.

Johnston Medical Center showcased the machine at its latest “Ladies’ Night” – a series of open houses on women’s health issues. One purpose of the series, said spokeswoman Suzette Rodriguez, is to make women aware of the services the hospitals in Smithfield and Clayton can offer them. Medical-sales representatives talked about their products; Stine and Mock spoke to attendees about various gynecological conditions. But the da Vinci captured most of the attention, at least early on.

Using it is not quite as easy as it looks. The cameras provide an up-close view, but Alison Dacey said she had trouble with depth perception. “You’d think something was much closer than it actually was,” she said.

But Dacey said she’d have no problem being operated on by a surgeon using the da Vinci.

The machine was simple enough for many of the women to perform complex motor tasks. Peggy Wall, a retired nurse, was able to pick up paperclips and unwind them using the machine. “I’d like to actually see it used in surgery,” she said.

It also excited another retired nurse, Ann Austin, who worked for Johnston Health for 18 years. Austin said she was excited to see the hospital getting state-of-the-art technology.

“It makes me want to go back to the operating room,” she said.