Students get hands-on with surgical robots

Doctor agrees with 7th-grader, it takes time to get used to it

Mathew Duggar tries his hand at the Da Vinci robot.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Dozens of middle and high school students spent Tuesday at St. Vincent's Southside Medical Center -- not for any kind of treatment, but to test drive a state-of-the-art surgical robot.

They got some hands-on time with the Da Vinci Xi, the latest in surgical robotics that is named after the 15th-Century inventor. The robot has four arms and extensions that function just like a doctor's arm and hand. In many cases, it can access parts of the body a lot easier than its human counterparts.

Doctors use it to perform minimally invasive surgeries. The students tried it out to see if they could use its robotic fingers to pick up and move rubber bands.

"It is pretty hard," Joseph Stilwell Middle School seventh-grader Mathew Duggar said. "It's very confusing because you think you're touching it yourself, but you're not."

Mathew, who is in the robotics club at school,  said he learned a lot. He already has ideas for the new robot he plans to build.

"It's a lot more fun to get hands-on experience and actually playing the game instead of people lecturing you about, 'This does this,'" Mathew said.

From heart surgery to gal bladder removal, the Da Vinci can be used for a variety of procedures. Surgeons say it's more efficient, less invasive and provides better visuals in 3D on a separate screen. But there is a downside: It provides no tactile feedback.

"We lose feel when utilizing the robots, so that is a bit of a negative, initially," Dr. Manpreet Grewal said. "Working the robot for a long enough time, you get to look at visual cues, which gives you an idea of how much pressure you're placing."

St. Vincent's has seven Da Vinci robotic suites in its hospitals. Doctors get extensive training before using the robot in surgery. Sensors on the machine alert doctors if any of the pieces are damaged or aren't work properly.

As for the students, it will take some time before they're performing any surgeries, but they predict one day that the robots will do the surgeries all by themselves.