Students, surgical team experience futuristic mind meld

University of Illinois student Jean Kwak with bioinstrumentation classmates, surgeonJean Kwak reached out, took control and grabbed the future.

No, that’s not a pithy phrase on a cross-stitched pillow or the online meme of the day. It describes the University of Illinois engineering student moving from the classroom to the operating room.

OK, just shy of that.

Kwak (student in navy blue) and three Biomedical Instrumentation classmates recently tested out the new da Vinci Xi before surgeons begin using Carle’s second robot-assisted surgical system in mid-November. Carle started performing robot-assisted surgeries in 2008. The da Vinci systems allow Carle patients to have minimally invasive gynecologic, gynecologic oncologic, urologic, colon/rectal and general surgeries so they can feel better and live longer.

“I loved how I learned something that was not online. It was amazing when I got to play with the machine and see it up close,” Kwak said, adding, “We’ll use this visit to better educate our class on this incredibly significant medical advancement and how it’s changing the world of medicine.”

Of course, “play” isn’t the right word when talking about real surgery on real patients. It takes years to become a skilled surgeon. However, when trained surgeons spend time learning how da Vinci models work, they do play as they practice.

Dr. Jeremy Jones, surgeon, gynecologyJust ask Dr. Jeremy Johnson (left), who has worked with each da Vinci model in the last four years—one year at Carle and three years at Mountainview Regional Medical Center in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

“With training, it becomes intuitive. You can convince yourself that you feel what’s going on,” he said. “Initially, though, you spend time in the simulation lab testing the ports, moving the arms.

“We maneuvered blocks and rubber bands. We played Operation. Yes, the Hasbro game Operation.”

When Kwak and the other students grasped the da Vinci controls and tried to thread a needle through a hoop, their reactions ranged from trepidation to determination.

To Dr. Marta Spain’s delight, they were all amazed.

“Can’t you just see the wheels turning in their minds?” she said. “These students are the future.

“They are touching the future here today.”

Dr. Spain, gynecology oncology surgeonSpain has been doing robot-assisted surgeries at Carle for five years. She helped encourage Carle to bring the first next-generation da Vinci to the region.

The newest version features 20 years of physician feedback about design and functionality. Intuitive Surgical works with Carle’s surgical teams to support the da Vinci, which serves as a natural extension of surgeons’ eye and hands.

Much to the students’ delight, Spain is quick to tout the surgeon-friendly advances.

The new console supports both the flexibility and the fortitude necessary to spend hours at a time moving and removing organs and tissue.

And while minimally invasive robot-assisted surgery often gets patients home faster, it’s not for every person or every surgery.

“For example, with advances in traditional and robotic surgery, women used to stay in the hospital for two or three days after a hysterectomy. About half of my da Vinci hysterectomy patients go home the same day,” Dr. Johnson said.

“They still need to take it easy for several weeks. They can easily overdo.”

da vinci surgical technicianDr. Spain applauds the skill and closeness of her team, which includes registered nurse certified robotic coordinator Ben Steinberg and certified surgical technologist Kaitlin Robinson (left).

“I couldn’t even begin to do this without them. Patients benefit because we do this, and we do this together. We make smart decisions together every step of the way,” Dr. Spain said.

That leads to what impacted Kwak most during her da Vinci learning experience.

“My biggest takeaway was to hear, ‘In the medical field, you need to ask yourself “Should I?” rather than “Can I?” from Dr. Spain. Since I’ve been interested in this robot, I believed haptic feedback sensors would do something good for doctors,” she said.

“I got to hear from the doctors who are currently using the robot that haptic feedback is not necessary.”

Students and surgeons spoke the same language often, but most tellingly with the word “haptic,” which means anything related to touch, that now-virtual sense surgeons rely on when using the da Vinci.

da Vinci Xi closeupThe connections and lessons confirmed for Kwak that—like others fascinated by the convergence of medicine and engineering—she’s grabbing the right future for her.

“Although I am a bit scared that everything is really fast, I like that the things I will be working on are focused on the future,” she said.

“I believe they can make a difference for good, and as long as engineers continue to help lead the trend, I believe I should be good, too.”