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On the cutting edge

UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences students get up close and personal with ‘da Vinci,’ the surgical robot

da Vinci surgical robot
UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences students wait to “test drive” the state-of-the-art da Vinci Surgical Robot. One way SMHS faculty researchers teach students is by bringing knowledge and cutting-edge technology into the classroom. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

With a twist of the wrist, Zach Hemann forged into surgery’s future.

The second-year medical student from Troy, Ill., was one of about 100 medical students and faculty who “test-drove” a $2 million da Vinci robotic surgical system, which was on display for a day at the School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Students and faculty were amazed at the robot’s sophistication and “feel” as they sat at the controls to pick up and manipulate objects several feet away.

“It’s cool to have more arms,” said Hemann about the robot, which can manipulate up to four instruments. “I was surprised by the ease of use – it’s very intuitive. It moves just like your hands.”

The surgeon controls the robot assistant with hand movements that bend and rotate the instruments inside the patient’s body. A 3-D, high-definition camera magnifies the view inside the patient. Incisions with the robot are smaller than in conventional surgery, and patients have lower infection rates, faster healing, and shorter hospitalizations.

Hemann was especially interested because he’d recently seen a patient who had robot-assisted surgery. “She had major surgery the day before, and was up and about,” said Hemann. “I wouldn’t have imagined she’d just had that kind of surgery.”

da Vinci surgical robot
Lexi Hanson, second-year medical student, helped bring the surgical robot to campus. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

A team effort

“This is a big deal,” said Joycelyn Dorscher, associate dean for student affairs and admissions at the School. “The company is bringing this at no cost to the School,” she said, noting that there is high demand for hands-on displays. “I’d be surprised if even a handful of medical schools could offer this kind of demonstration. It’s a phenomenal opportunity for all students.”

Dorscher coordinated logistics for the visit, which came about through the efforts of two second-year medical students, Dylan Dangerfield and Lexi Hanson, co-presidents of the Ob-Gyn interest group at the School, along with Dylan’s father, Dr. Jon Dangerfield, and Intuitive Surgical, the da Vinci’s manufacturer.

Hands-on learning

“I can’t wait to get my hands on it,” said Hanson, a Grand Forks native. “We’ve been working all year to get this machine here. This is the new norm for our generation. It doubles the hands of the surgeon – I was surprised to grasp how many arms there are. It’s so intricate and moves with such delicacy – it’s incredible.”

“Most people have never seen a surgical robot,” said Dylan Dangerfield, a Fargo native. “I wanted my classmates to see it and get it on their radar.”

Dylan’s father, Dr. Jon Dangerfield, was the first gynecologist in North Dakota to use the robot in his practice at Sanford Health in Fargo, where he is chief of gynecology. An alum of the School and the UND biology program, he has performed more than 900 surgeries with the robot assistant.

“The robot excels in difficult cases,” said Jon Dangerfield. “It’s not meant for the easy stuff.”

Dr. Dangerfield said that patients have less pain and bleeding, lower infection rates, and shorter hospitalizations. About 90 percent of his patients go home the same day.

The robot assistant is easier to use than the equipment for laparoscopic surgery, said Jon Dangerfield. “You can move your wrists. It’s not rigid like laparoscopy.” And, he added, the visualization is phenomenal. “The picture is clearer than when cutting someone open,” he said.

Dr. Dangerfield started using the robot in 2008 after researching it in journals and in person at other hospitals. “I didn’t want my patients to be guinea pigs,” he said. But as he visited other hospitals across the country, he noticed that patients who received robot-assisted surgery were doing better than patients who had conventional “open” surgery. “That motivated me,” he said.

Dr. Jon Dangerfield and son, Dylan
Dr. Jon Dangerfield poses with his son Dylan, a second-year medical student. Dr. Dangerfield uses a similar robot in his practice at Sanford Health in Fargo and gave an invited talk to students about robotic surgery. Photo by Tyler Ingham.

The wave of the future

Students were amazed at the technology, and a steady parade of students and faculty tried out the machine. It spoke their language, many said.

“We’ve grown up playing video games,” said Dylan Dangerfield. “Look at this – the huge machine and the delicacy and intricacy of movements – it’s just like using your hands.”

“This is the wave of the future,” said Dorscher. “It’s important for medical students to see how technology is advancing. Bringing in this robot is a concrete way to let students see the future of medicine. The robot tool will result in better surgeries with better outcomes, fewer side effects, and faster recoveries. People will be better able to get back to their usual lives, and in some cases, a significantly better life.”