A Visit to the Robot Surgeon

Members of the Online Learning Team posing wearing surgical scrubs

Recently the Online Learning Team went to film a robot performing surgery at the Royal Hallamshire Hospital for our upcoming course with the Department of Automatic Control and Systems Engineering. This is production manager Dave Holloway’s account of facing his fear of going under the (robotic) knife.

Blood. Guts. Surgery. Three things which, if I’m honest, I don’t chomp at the bit to be in a room with. Which was why, when our team had to film a robot surgeon removing a man’s prostate, I was understandably hesitant.

Sure, robots are amazing – but did I really want to be in the same room with one as it carried out an operation? The robot in question is the da Vinci Surgical System which is designed to help surgeons carry out operations in a minimally invasive manner.

Controlled by a trained surgeon who is at a remote unit, the da Vinci has four robotic arms which are inserted into the body using microscopic needles and then use surgical tools such as scissors, knives, torches and needles to perform keyhole surgery. The surgeon has the use of onboard cameras and mainly controls the machine using his middle fingers and thumbs.

A surgeon uses the da Vinci Surgical System to operate on a patient.

First off; it’s a miraculous piece of equipment that is improving more lives than just those it operates on. It was initially conceived because of the negative effect that long surgery was having on the musculoskeletal health of doctors; it was found that performing these operations manually was forcing medical professionals to stand in one awkward position for long periods of time, which was forcing early retirements from injuries.

All that aside for one moment, it’s still not a robot you’d like to meet down a dark alley. And when you’re in a room with it, already fearful of what you might be witness to, at first it seems more like a foe than friend.

Luckily, though, once the da Vinci was fired up and the incredibly capable medical team had started to work, all those concerns melted away and we watched a truly impressive demonstration of how far medical technology, and human knowhow, has come.

The patient first has his stomach inflated with gas to the point where he looks as if he were 9 months pregnant, then the needles are injected into him and the tiny instruments at the end of each robot arm can go to work. The remote unit has a second viewing screen so we were each in turn invited to watch as the surgeon casually cut, sliced and burned his way through the stomach lining of the patient and, seeing how much we were enjoying it, provided a graphic audio commentary as he worked.

“That’s a hernia, we’ll just cut that out, do you see his collection of bile? I just need to burn that away…” and so on. The viewfinder covers all of your vision so it’s very much like being inside a VR headset, or maybe watching Innerspace in 3D. There was still blood and gore but, somehow because of that barrier of a screen you felt no emotional connection to it – not as if I imagine you would if you were standing above a patient with their chest opened up.

Members of the Online Learning Team posing wearing surgical scrubs

The name operating theatre comes from the time when it was just that; an audience of colleagues and students would observe from up high when surgeons would practise their most recent methods for the purposes of education. The same happened with our experience, except they were using digital and robot technologies to perform and we, with our cameras and online courses, were helping to educate even more people.

My personal highlight was watching as two microscopic robots hands threaded a needle by torchlight, and then sewed up a cut stomach lining, from inside the patient. That this was happening inside the human being lying no less than a metre away from me was staggering, and a real indication of how robot technology can be used to save lives in a healthier, safer and more cost effective way.

We were in the theatre for about an hour and a half and, as we left, the surgeon and nurses were preparing for another 2 hours of surgery until the prostate was safely removed. We left with not only some terrific video footage, but also a renewed respect for technology and those skilled hands which control it. It made me less fearful of whatever surgery I could face in the future, and that the blood and guts I so feared seeing is actually that which keeps us going.

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About Dave Holloway

Dave Holloway
Dave Holloway is a Production Manager in the University of Sheffield's Online Learning Team. In previous professional lives, Dave has been a filmmaker, editor, VJ, and events producer, notably with FutureEverything and Sheffield Doc/Fest.

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