Today, Lisa and I performed surgery . . . right there next to the Macy’s at the mall.
We were there after another of my early morning swim classes—where I learned to kick better—and an 8-mile run after I got home from that. (Hey! Don’t look at me that way. I’m going to be on a plane to Los Angeles tomorrow when I would normally be running, and we all do what we must to get by, right?) We needed to have lunch, get something to organize my exercise clothes—which runneth over—and to get Lisa a coat. We had a bit of time to kill between when we were done shopping and the 2:30 showing of “Wreck It Ralph” (which is fun for all ages) so we decided to look at the two big robotic surgery devices that Brigham and Women’s Hospital had set up.
“Would you like to give it a shot?” Honestly, I wanted to get my hands on the actual device that people were using to place small rubber bands on little spongy rubber mountains that wiggled when you bumped them with the probe the wrong way. (“Well I just botched that poor bastard’s laparoscopic prostate removal. Sorry.”) But the simulator would be just fine . . . for a start.
“You play video games?” It was easier just to say yes than to explain that, while I love playing first-person shooter games, I always have horribly violent dreams afterward. So I don’t actually play them anymore. (We’ll see if I have dreams tonight where I’m beating up terrorists’ innards while performing their bariatric bypass surgeries.) “You know how you eventually don’t have to look at the controller and can just do things by feel and intuition? Well, that’s what this simulator is for. Doctors can spend hours practicing before operating on living patients.”
“Okay, put your thumb and middle finger through the two loops on each handle, look through the goggles, pick up the colored ‘jacks,’ and place them in the ‘dish’ of the same color.” In the viewer I could see a CGI scene of computerized jacks, dishes, and my claws. I took a moment to familiarize myself and then I went to town, moving the misplaced appendix—I mean jacks—to their appropriate place. It reminded me of a miniaturized version of the nuclear fuel handling device I played with at the museum in Arco, Idaho. I did pretty well on my first try (78%) and I got a few pointers for the next time—whenever that might be.
Then Lisa gave me the shopping bags and gave it a whirl. Turns out, she is the one you want doing your surgery. Girlfriend got a 94% on her first go! She was quick and efficient, just like she is in real life. No risk of virtual patients bleeding out while Lisa Mather, MD, is at the controls.
After that, the machine with real-world objects opened up, and I moved little rubber bands onto springy little mountains that had chunks taken out of them by obviously less skilled hands. Lisa didn’t give this one a shot, but I’m sure she would have done it better than I did. (She graciously said that I was better than most of the people we had seen playing earlier.)
It was interesting and fun and very space-agey, yet I couldn’t help wondering whether the $2.5 million dollar machine was worth the cost? Did it give better results? Everything the manufacturer reps said seemed to indicate that it would be—better motion control, less fatigue for doctors, less pain and trauma for patients, the ability for surgical specialists in one country to treat patients in another—but the proof is in the peer-reviewed studies. They assured me that there is published research that says the outcomes are just as good or better using robotic surgery, but (if I were needing surgery) it’s something I would want to check out for myself.
But I had a lot of fun playing around with medical devices. It reminded me of the time several years ago when I went to RSNA, an enormous convention dedicated to radiology. I was killing time before a session when a GE Healthcare rep saw me. “You there! Come try out the new workstation.” I think she assumed that I was a radiologist, and the next thing I knew I was sitting down in front of a very powerful computer performing a virtual colonoscopy next to actual radiologists (who did know what they were doing) with their own displays.
When the device rep told us all to navigate to a particular anatomical structure I felt like I was Chevy Chase in “Spies Like Us.” I might have leaned back in my chair so that I could steal a glance at my neighbor’s workstation. Eventually I gave up any pretext of following along, but I remember thinking, “This is soooo cool! I’m making a movie of flying around in some dude’s colon. Yippie-ki-yay!”
If you need any medical treatment, go see a real doctor. But if you want to play one on TV, hang out with me outside the Macy’s at the Natick Mall.