Robotic Lung Surgery Offers Precision, Better Hand Control

Inside this Walnut Creek, California, operating room, the da Vinci Robotic System's arms are inside the patient's chest.  But surgeon Dr. Wilson Tsai sits several feet away.  He's speaking over a loud speaker to his team, while controlling everything the robotic system does with his fingers and feet.

Dr. Tsai can't see the patient from where he is, at least not directly. Instead, he's looking at a 3D image of the patient's chest.  And, if you're thinking all of this sounds like a videogame, Dr. Tsai would agree with you.

"I think i had an advantage because i grew up playing Playstation and the Nintendo," he says.  "So it was easier for me to convert that hand eye coordination to the the three dimensional image from the instruments I feel in my hands," says Dr. Tsai.

Tsai says da Vinci can cut down on pain, the risk of infection and recovery time.

"I think the very first thing it does is improve visualization for the procedure."

Retired doctor Lawrence Silverman recently had lung surgery with Dr. Tsai and the da Vinci.  Because of his weight, and diabetes, Silverman doesn't think he could have survived an open-chest procedure.  But Dr. Tsai says good medicine isn't just about the latest technology.

"A great robot doesn't make a mediocre surgeon better," says Tsai.

In the OR, things can change very quickly. In one case, the da Vinci helps Tsai remove a tumor and part of a patient's lung. But because of complications in another surgery, the system is never brought into the operating room.

It's a real life reminder that, while technology is remarkable, what makes a surgeon a surgeon is judgment. Knowing when to use the technology, and when not to.