Students gear up for da Vinci, a robot surgeon

October 18, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Swedish/Issaquah hosts local schools for robotics demonstration

Michael Petkov, Swedish Medical Center robotics charge nurse, sets the arms on a da Vinci Surgical System robot to perform procedures on a dish of plastic pieces and a grape. By Greg Farrar

The surgeon of the future is clad in gray plastic and operates using a quartet of spindly arms.

The brain in the surgeon of the future — a robot named for a legendary inventor — is a flesh-and-blood physician at the controls. The surgeon guides the robot amid procedures and, like a scene lifted from a sci-fi flick, guide tool-tipped arms to cut infinitesimal incisions and perform tasks inside the confines of a human body.

Swedish Medical Center rolled out a da Vinci Surgical System unit to educate local schools’ robotics clubs as the Issaquah hospital prepares to open inpatient services Nov. 1.

Students scrambled for a chance to use miniscule pincers to peel a grape or perform simulated stitching. The acts simulated the precise motions used in da Vinci-assisted procedures.

“It’s basically like a videogame for them,” Dr. Pamela Paley, a gynecologic oncologist trained to use the da Vinci robot, said Oct. 13 after students completed the grape-peeling activity.

Using a robot means a less-invasive procedure, reduced blood loss and a speedier recovery for the patient.

“The trauma of surgery is much less,” Paley said.

Swedish/Issaquah open house

Swedish/Issaquah is scheduled to open inpatient services, including a childbirth center, Nov. 1.
Expectant parents can tour the childbirth center and participate in other activities at a public open house from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Oct. 23. Space for the event is limited. Learn more and register for the event at the Swedish/Issaquah website,

Swedish/Issaquah hosted robotics clubs from Issaquah School District middle and high schools last week. Overall, more than 150 students headed to the hospital lobby to test the robot — a $2 million unit used for bariatric, gynecological, urological and other procedures.

Users peer inside a sleek control unit for a 3-D image of the incision sites. Throughout the activities, students’ disembodied voices echoed from inside the unit.

Some features on the high-tech system resembled the videogame consoles in students’ homes.

“These kids are so into a joystick,” Maywood Middle School science teacher Marla Crouch said. “The controls were two fingers and a thumb — like you put into a bowling ball — on each of the hands, plus the foot pedals. The kids that are used to any of the videogaming get this piece very quickly.”

The team from Maywood Middle School used the robot to place small rubber bands on multicolored nodules. The task required some dexterous maneuvers to complete.

“When you were looking through the monitor, you could see the different heights of these different pieces,” Crouch said. “That was just really cool for the kids.”

Michael Petkov, Swedish/Issaquah robotics charge nurse, used cues from color-coded lights on the arms to add and attach the proper instruments. The da Vinci is programmed to retain surgeons’ personal settings, too.

Issaquah Middle School science teacher Michaela Donahoe led students through a grape-peeling exercise.

The task is practice for the robots teams assembled for FIRST Lego League competitions. Teams use the multicolored bricks to create problem-solving robots.

“The creative thinking that goes into this is phenomenal, because they’re building something on the fly,” Crouch said. “At this age, they’re not inhibited by what they know can’t work. They are very much willing to try things and think out of the box.”

Issaquah Middle School eighth-grader Corbin Modica, 13, said robotics demand precision, especially as the team constructs and programs a robot.

“If you have one number or one variable wrong, the whole thing doesn’t work,” he said as a line of students inched toward the da Vinci control unit.

Teachers said the surgeon of the future offered some long-lasting lessons to next-generation engineers and physicians.

“To give the kids this experience into these technologies does nothing but encourage them to continue in the technical, mechanical field,” Crouch said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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One Response to “Students gear up for da Vinci, a robot surgeon”

  1. Pincer vs. pincher - Usage - Grammarist on May 8th, 2012 8:42 pm

    […] scrambled for a chance to use miniscule pincers to peel a grape or perform simulated stitching. [Issaquah Press]Syria, caught in a strategic pincer between Israel and American Iraq, would naturally bow down […]

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