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Providence St. Vincent surgeons deploy robots to battle human diseases

JAIME VALDEZ - Dr. Amanda McClure demonstrates how to use the da Vinci robotic surgery system at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center.

Jeff Perry has a robot to thank for being up and around just five weeks after having 12 inches of his colon and part of his bladder removed.

No, the 50-year-old Raleigh Hills resident doesn’t have R2-D2 for a doctor, but he can credit the latest robotic surgery technology for making his recovery from complex surgeries relatively easy.

“I was up and around in a couple weeks,” Perry said Tuesday at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, where he had the procedure done last month after his colon had fused to his bladder.

In a more traditional and invasive form of surgery, Perry said, doctors would have cut across his abdominal muscles. “I would just be barely getting ambulatory” now, he said.

When Perry was on the operating table, Dr. Amanda McClure was 5 feet away at the controls of a da Vinci Xi, the fourth generation of a robotic surgery technology that St. Vincent has used for more than 15 years.JAIME VALDEZ - A da Vinci Surgical System robot was on display at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center earlier this week.

“They go to work a lot quicker (and) their pain is significantly less,” said McClure, a surgeon who practices at St. Vincent. “They get back to life a lot sooner.”

This newest system, which St. Vincent acquired last fall, is particularly suited for surgeries in the colorectal and thoracic areas of the body. One example is surgically combatting colorectal cancer, one of the leading causes of death.

“It’s so versatile it could be used for other things,” McClure said.

The da Vinci isn’t an independently operating robot like R2-D2. It’s more of a remote-controlled device that enables the surgeon to deftly maneuver surgical tools inside their patients’ bodies through relatively small incisions. That makes it less invasive, which in turn makes recoveries faster.

The devices are increasingly common at hospitals, said David Kelso, a regional clinical manager for Intuitive Surgical, which makes the surgical robots in use at St. Vincent. He said 19 of the da Vinci robotic surgery units are in use in the Portland area and another eight are operating elsewhere in Oregon.

St. Vincent has the two most recent generations of the technology, Kelso said. On Monday, in the middle of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, he and McClure helped hospital guests and employees from other departments “test drive” one of them with tasks that loosely simulated the skills a surgeon would need in the operating room.

On their initial tries, some of the “test drivers” fumbled their way through trying to drop tiny rubber bands used on orthodontic braces onto soft posts in a simulated patient’s chest. But within minutes, familiarity with the device and improved hand-eye coordination made the task simple despite its miniature scale. Other visitors took their shot at peeling a grape.

McClure said she has used the robot so much that she now has the sensation that she is touching the instruments directly to the patient, even though she is working controls a full body length away. But that’s not why she likes it.

“The reason I use this,” she said, “is because it’s better for my patients.”

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