WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — It's not every day you get the chance to take a multimillion-dollar piece of machinery for a test drive.
That's what the public got to do recently, as Saint Mary's Hospital unveiled its newest high-tech equipment — the $2 million da Vinci SI Robotic Surgical System. Set up near the Christmas tree in the hospital's lobby, the system was available for two hours for anyone, from the public to staff members, to sit down and try out; about 100 people did.
Novices were allowed to sit at the control console with their eyes pressed against the machine's viewfinder, while using their thumbs and forefingers to manipulate the robotic arms to try to pick up a penny, a dime, or tiny rubber bands placed on a small plastic dish. Most had little trouble performing the tasks.
The system, made by Intuitive Surgical Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., is the hospital's second; it purchased its first in early 2010. Since then, Saint Mary's has performed nearly 1,000 robot-assisted surgical procedures, hospital officials said.
Having a second robotic surgical system puts Saint Mary's in elite company in Connecticut. According to Michael Gervais, regional sales manager for Intuitive, just five other hospitals in Connecticut have more than one robotic surgical system -- Hartford Hospital; Hospital of Central Connecticut in New Britain; Manchester Hospital; Saint Francis Hospital in Hartford, and Yale-New Haven Hospital. Neither Bristol Hospital, Griffin Hospital in Derby, nor Waterbury Hospital has even one.
Dr. Shady Macaron, a general surgeon with Middlebury Surgical, said the hospital's first robotic system was used primarily for gynecological procedures, such as hysterectomies. Last month, however, Macaron used the system to perform a single-incision, robot-assisted gallbladder surgery, in which a patient's gallbladder was removed through a one-inch incision in the belly button. The procedure, which was approved for the da Vinci system by the Food and Drug Administration in December 2011, had been performed at just two other hospitals in the state.
Macaron said Saint Mary's decided about four months ago to broaden the scope of robot-assisted surgeries that could be performed with the system to include thoracic, colorectal and surgical weight-loss procedures. The hospital has 24 surgeons certified to perform robot-assisted surgeries, including 10 thoracic surgeons, nine gynecological surgeons, three urologists and two general surgeons.
Saint Mary's also has become a training site for robot-assisted procedures, both for surgeons and for surgical nurses, Macaron said.
He said the advantages of robotic surgical procedures include that it is minimally invasive, requiring at most slicing four small holes in a patient, which reduces not only the risk of infection but also the amount of pain and scarring, while also reducing a patient's recovery time.
"There is no hospital stay" when removing a gallbladder this way, Macaron said.
The system's 3-D camera system and its ability to enhance the view as much as 40 times also provides surgeons with a more detailed look at what they are doing, while the robotic arms provide greater precision and the ability to rotate an instrument 360 degrees.
Dr. J. Alexander Palesty, a general surgeon and surgical oncologist with the Breast and Oncology Center in Southbury, said having the second system will allow for more procedures.
"It's very exciting," Palesty said. "Now patients won't have to have an extensive waiting period to have a procedure done."
It also means the number of procedures Saint Mary's will do using the equipment will increase significantly, matching a national trend. According to Intuitive, more than 140 different surgical procedures in 10 different specialties are now performed with robotic surgical systems in more than 1,300 hospitals nationwide.
"This is the future," Palesty said. "The demand is clearly there, and demand drives change."