Robo surgeon freezes in operation theatre

Doctors at Asian Heart Institute got the scare of their lives when the robot they were wielding to perform an advanced prostate surgery on a cancer patient stopped working minutes before an incision was made

A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, says the central law of robotics expounded by science fiction author Isaac Asimov.

But if a recent mishap at Asian Heart Institute is to be believed, the spirit of mutiny is brewing among the androids.

Kaput: Doctors were relieved that the patient was unhurt when the robot
performing the surgery stopped taking instructions

Doctors and anaesthesiologists at Asian Heart Institute got the scare of their lives when the robot they were wielding to perform an advanced prostate cancer surgery went kaput minutes before an incision was made.

Mahendra Shah (name withheld on request) was slated to go under the knife in a robotic-assisted prostrate cancer operation on December 6. The anaesthesiologists and surgeons scrubbed in, made preparatory arrangements, and when Shah was out like a light, they retired to their console, from where they were to issue directions to the machine.

The robot was fastened to Shah, and surgery was initiated.

It was at this critical juncture that the robot suddenly went kaput, and stopped taking instructions from the surgeons manouevering it.

Shah, to everyone's utter relief, was as of yet unscathed by the robot, and blissfully unconscious.

Surgery aborted
"The doctors tried all possible ways to re-start the robot, but it did not respond to their machinations. The surgery had to be aborted and the patient revived from anaesthesia," said a source from the hospital.

Speaking to MiD DAY, Shah said, "I was under the effect of anaesthesia, so I have no recollection of the entire incident. When I came to, my surgeon said that some glitches had cropped up with the robot during surgery. I was crestfallen, and I had been eager to undergo robotic surgery. It is believed to be the best form of treatment, and I didn't want to compromise on quality."

Technical snag
Confirming that the robot had developed a technical snag, senior uro-oncologist Dr V Shreeniwas, who was performing the surgery, said, "The robot is a machine, and one of its parts developed a hitch. We notified the manufacturing company, and the part was delivered to us. The robot has been functional from Monday. This is a very infrequent occurrence. We have now rescheduled his surgery for Thursday morning.

Undaunted by his first ill-fated encounter with an obstinate robot, Shah has opted for the surgery again. Speaking to MiD DAY minutes before being re-admitted yesterday, he said, "I am fortunate that the robot did not go out of control, and that I escaped the mishap unscathed. I am confident that the second attempt will prove successful." Shah is incurring an estimated Rs 4 lakh for the surgery. 

"The company that manufactured the robot said that this was a one-off incident, and that they hadn't encountered any problems in the 6,000 cases worldwide," said Dr Jagdeesh Kulkarni, senior uro-oncologist at Asian Heart Institute. He added that since the inception of the robotic system in August, doctors had performed 25-odd urology related operations with its help.

The Other side
Dr Vijay D'Silva, Medical Director, Asian Heart Institute, said, "We have successfully performed 24 robotic surgeries at Asian Heart. There is no such thing as a 'robot freeze'. The robot is a highly sophisticated and well-engineered piece of equipment, and a minor anomaly was observed and reported by the technician prior to surgery."

The Robot
The Da Vinci surgical system allows surgeons to operate with greater dexterity, making smaller incisions, which consequently reduces blood loss, speeds up recovery, and eliminates chances of infection. Named after the versatile 15th century Italian Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci, the robot is manufactured by Intuitive Surgical Inc, a California-based medical technology firm, which created the first Da Vinci prototype in the year 2000, and received the FDA approval the following year. Each machine costs $2.5 million  (about Rs 11 crore) and is frequently used in urological, colorectal, cardiothoracic and gyneacological surgeries.

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