Hands-on with surgical robots

Eight students were given the task of placing small plastic rings on rubber spikes and turning a quarter from heads to tails — without using their hands.

The sixth-grade robotics team from the Pegasus School, a private elementary school in Huntington Beach, had to use the appendages of a $1.5 million surgical robot in a Fountain Valley Regional Hospital operating room to get the job done Friday afternoon.

The students are entering in the FIRST Lego League robotics competition in November in Anaheim and visited the facility to see how some robots functioned in the real world.

"It was pretty awesome," student Jessica Yang said. "It was cool to be able to see what the surgeon would be doing during a real surgery."

The machine, called the da Vinci Si Surgical System, is used in soft-tissue operations, said Dr. Reginald Abraham, a physician at the hospital whose son attends Pegasus.

Donning green surgical gowns and caps, the children sat behind a large console that controlled the robot about four feet away. Peering into the 3D viewfinder, they operated the robot's arms and forceps using two devices controlled by their thumbs and middle fingers.

The machine precisely mimicked the students' movements, following every twist of the wrist and pinch of the fingers.

"It felt as though you were actually picking something up," Yang said. "You could totally feel the tension when you accidentally held on to both sides of the quarter when you were trying to twist it over. I was like, 'Oh wait, I need to let go first.'"

The students huddled over the surgery table, using their iPhone and iPads to film the robotic arms moving about.

While the children were impressed with the da Vinci system, Abraham was amazed at how quickly they learned to operate it.

"I know surgeons who have been training on this that are slower," he said. "I make light of it, but I do know some surgeons that struggle and they don't quite get the grasp, but eventually they do. But it's truly a generational thing. The idea of joysticks and Xbox controllers do have an application here."

Rose Kunze, a third- and fourth-grade math teacher at Pegasus who serves as the robotics team advisor, was happy to see her students excited about the assignment that afternoon.

She believes that the field trip not only helped the children with their upcoming competition, but also inspired a few to one day pursue a career in the robotics field.

"Everyone's in awe, but for some of them, you can see the wheels turning in their head, absorbing the information and taking it to the next step," Kunze said.

Students were also introduced to the relatively rare Mazor Robotics Renaissance System, which guides surgeons in placing medical screws into a patient during spinal surgery.

Dr. Ram Mudiyam told the students that although the technology has come a long way, it's useless unless the operator is properly trained.

"We have a saying: 'A fool with a tool is still a fool,'" he said. "If you don't know how to use properly, it's not going to help you. You have to use your brain, and the robot is there to make your results more predictable and more reproducible."

The Mazor Robotics Renaissance System is one of two such machines in Orange County — the other is at UCI Medical Center — and one of four in Southern California, Abraham said.

"Not every hospital has this stuff," he said. "That takes an investment and a partnership with the doctors and the hospital. Fountain Valley is on the cutting edge of new technologies to get people better."

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