Column: Delnor’s da Vinci no horror story

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Dec. 2, 2010

Dr. Jonathan Song probably could pull a kidney out of your body through a hole the size of a dime or smaller using a surgical robot.

(Keep reading. This isn’t the beginning of a horror story. I promise.)

However, the task he was faced with on Wednesday night might have been even more daunting. Song, the chairman of the Delnor Robotics Committee, had to guide about 30 middle-school aged students through a tour of a Delnor Hospital operating room that had smack dab in the middle of it a $1.75 million piece of equipment – the da Vinci robotic surgical system. That’s right. Middle school students were within touching distance of a sensitive $1.75 million piece of equipment. I used to coach middle school basketball in a church league. Certainly not every middle school student is this way, but a sizable portion of them have brains that force them to do the opposite of whatever you tell them, for example, “Don’t touch the incredibly expensive, sensitive robot.” Delnor is so, so brave.

(As a side note, the students were very respectful and the robot was not touched. Though I still think the experience would have given a Delnor administrator a heart attack.)

The demonstration was part of a tour Delnor offered to a group of Fox Valley Robotics and Batavia Robotics members – fifth- through eighth-grade students from all parts of the Tri-Cities and its surrounding areas. After a short presentation from Dr. Song in one of Delnor’s board rooms, the students, as well as me and a few parents, suited up in scrubs and headed toward the operating room.

“I thought that a visit to Delnor to see da Vinci would be eye opening for these students,” Fox Valley Robotics and Batavia Robotics leader Ron Karabowicz said in a release sent out before the tour. “It ties together what they are learning in competition this year with real-world robotics.

According to the release, each year the Fox Valley Robotics and Batavia Robotics groups participate in the First Lego League international robotics competition – yes, this actually exists, I checked – which attracts 14,000 teams worldwide. This year, according to the release, teams are required to explore the cutting-edge world of biomedical engineering to discover innovative ways to repair injuries, overcome genetic predispositions and maximize the body’s potential. And what better way to do this than to get a firsthand look at a robot that performs surgery?

“It’s become a learning center,” Song told me before the students arrived, “even though we didn’t intend it to be that way.”

Song said da Vinci is used five days a week and that the number of robo-surgeons has jumped from two to eight since its inception about two years ago. And no, before you ask, robo-surgeons don’t look anything like RoboCop.

I don’t completely understand how da Vinci works, but I got the gist of it.

It has four arms – a camera arm and three arms to do surgery. The surgeon stands behind the patient in a console booth and operates the arms from there while viewing what he or she is doing through the camera arm. The robot makes small incision in which it sticks its arms into and does its work.

Song said there are many benefits to it. Quicker healing time. Less chance of infection. Less pain.

After walking into the room and getting my first look at it, though, I have to admit it reminded me of a device I saw on the BBC TV show “Dr. Who” – a device, by the way, which turned humans into robots. Now, I’m not saying I wouldn’t be comfortable having da Vinci used on me. Honestly, having little holes in my body seems preferable to being cut all the way open. But I would be a little worried of finding out that I had been turned into a robot afterward. Also, as one of the students asked during Song’s presentation, “How do you get the kidney out of there with the little incisions?”

“We’re very creative,” Song said, which I’m pretty sure was doctor speak for “you don’t want to know.” At least, I didn’t want to know, so I’m glad he didn’t go into more detail.

A demonstration was done in the operating room of its capabilities, in which da Vinci picked up a penny. Song said the robot also could be used to make a paper airplane or an origami bird, which is cool but a little unsettling knowing that da Vinci spends much of its work day near intestines.

Overall, it was a good learning experience for me and the students. They learned more about a fascinating robot. And I learned that just because a device looks like something I saw on TV, doesn’t necessarily mean it will turned me into a robot. (I told you it wasn’t a horror story.)

Joe Grace is the editor of the Kane County Chronicle. Write to him at or call him at 630-845-5368.


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