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Robot-assisted surgery arrives in Winona

Winona Health staff and visitors got a chance to "test-drive" the surgical robot on Monday.

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Certified surgical technician Karissa Rueth uses the surgical robot's two needle drivers to grab rubber bands on flexible cones during a demonstration at Winona Health Hospital on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023.
Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin
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WINONA — There's a new tool in Winona Health Hospital's operating room.

Winona Health Hospital debuted its da Vinci surgical robot on Monday, letting staff and visitors feel first-hand how a surgeon would use the system — costing between $1.5 and $2 million — to perform surgeries like hysterectomies, appendectomies and hernia repairs.

Angie Johannes, director of surgical services at Winona Health, said the surgical system arrived in November, and members of the surgery team completed in-person and online training in December. This month, the robot will make its operating room debut.

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"We have our first scheduled cases this month," Johannes said. "Right now, we're focusing on general surgery: appendix removal, gallbladder removal and hernia repair."

The surgical system has three components. The patient cart is closest to the patient, propping up the four robotic arms that hold and move the surgical instruments. One of the robotic arms houses a 3D-HD camera, providing a 3D view of the surgical site. The vision cart houses the system's computers and provides a live feed of the surgery for the rest of the operating room to see. Then, at the surgeon console, the surgeon uses their hands to control the instruments. Below, foot pedals are used to increase or decrease the camera's magnification and adjust the height of the view screen.


With loops around their index fingers and thumbs, Winona Health staff and visitors took turns operating the surgical robot's wristed instrument controls, moving their hands to position the robot's two needle drivers above a small, colorful rubber band. By pinching their index finger and thumb together, each user clasped the rubber band with the needle driver and picked it up, moving it across a small field of flexible cones and placing it on top of a cone of a matching color.

Enhanced dexterity is a key function of the surgical robot, said Mike Henry, clinical sales representative for Intuitive, the company that produces the da Vinci surgical systems and software. The system filters out hand tremors, and movement is translated through the system at a 3:1 ratio — if a surgeon's hand moves 6 centimeters, Henry said, the tool will move 2 centimeters. Sensors around the view screen area can also tell if the surgeon is looking at the screen or not, and the robotic arms only move when the surgeon is at the console.

The system provides benefits for patients and their surgeons, Johannes said.

"You're not standing at the table and you're not laboring for long periods of time over this patient in the surgical field," said Johannes. "The surgeon instead is sitting at a console where it is ergonomically designed to enhance visualization for our patients and in the body cavity, specifically."

Certified surgical technician Karissa Rueth demonstrates how a surgeon would use Winona Health's new surgical robot at Winona Health Hospital on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023.
Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

Robot-assisted surgery can also cut down how long procedures take — Johannes said a typical hour-long procedure could be done in 15 minutes with the new tool. That can result in the patient needing less pain medication after the operation and speeding up their healing time.

As Winona Health's surgeons get more comfortable using the surgical robot, Johannes said the hospital will expand its robot-assisted surgical offerings, including gynecological operations.

"Robot-assisted hysterectomy is a very common procedure that will be one of the procedures our obstetrician-gynecologist will be doing," Johannes said.

On the left, the vision cart displays a live feed of the surgical field while the patient cart's arms perform the actions directed by the surgeon, who sits at a different console. Winona Health's new surgical robot system was on display at Winona Health Hospital on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023.
Dené K. Dryden / Post Bulletin

Dené K. Dryden is the Post Bulletin's region reporter, covering the greater Rochester area. Before joining the Post Bulletin in 2022, she attended Kansas State University and served as an editor for the student newspaper, the Kansas State Collegian, and news director for Wildcat 91.9, K-State's student radio station. Readers can reach Dené at ddryden@postbulletin.com.
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