The Phantom Of The Opera-Tion This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

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   During the past several years, the use of virtual reality has been a popular form of futuristic entertainment. However, an ingenious medical application of this technology is what captures headlines today.

Within the next few years, it will be possible for surgeons to operate on a patient without touching the body or even manipulating the instruments operating on the body. Furthermore, this operation can even be performed from a different room, city, or even from across the ocean to the front lines of a battleground in a foreign country. This remarkable new technology, called telesurgery, utilizes the concepts of virtual reality and could be responsible for saving countless lives.

One of the first devices using this technology is the Green Telepresence Surgery System. With this device, doctors wear special three-dimensional glasses to view an image of the patient and use medical instruments connected to mechanical arms which actually perform the surgery. The doctors can feel simulated sensations of surgery through the instruments. Although this machine has not yet been used on humans, practice on animal organs has proven effective.

Another similar microsurgical robot called MSR-1 was created in 1989. While based on the same principles as the Green device, MSR-1 contains more desirable features. For instance, the robot's movements can scale down those of the surgeon up to one-hundredth of the size. This is vital when performing microsurgery. MSR-1 can also increase the forces of the robotic arm so that the surgeon can feel more sensations than during normal surgery. Even more amazingly, this apparatus can sense and alert surgeons when a sudden move (which would have resulted in a bad incision) has occurred. Unfortunately, this device is extremely costly to produce and would be too expensive to use effectively for telesurgery.

Since 1989, this device has been perfected and more uses for it discovered. It is precise up to 400-billionths of an inch, and it can scale down the surgeons' movements by a factor of a million. Therefore, this microrobot can grasp a single living cell between the tips of its mechanical arms. In addition, since the forces can be scaled up to enable the surgeon to feel more, one can physically perceive the forces of holding a cell - an amazing feat. But, this has not yet been available to the medical community.

However, one tool that can be employed for telesurgery has hit the market. This is a personal haptic interface device, or in simpler terms: PHANToM. This machine follows the movements of the user's fingertip, which is positioned inside of a thimble connected to a mechanical arm. The computer then exerts a force onto the fingertip, thereby enabling the user to "feel" the object on the computer screen. A scalpel or other tool can be used to replace the thimble; it will feel as though one is actually using that instrument. In addition, two PHANToMs can be used simultaneously, one in each hand.

Telesurgery has numerous other advantages. One application being researched is the use for soldiers injured on the battlefields. Many soldiers die en route to a hospital of wounds that would be nonfatal with appropriate medical attention. With telesurgery, soldiers will soon be able to be put in a van containing the necessary equipment and have a skilled procedure performed immediately, long distance.

Of course, virtual reality surgery can also be helpful in operating rooms of all hospitals. First, new surgeons can gain practice while performing simulated operations, better preparing them for actual surgery. Next, since the robotic arms are so precise, surgeries will require shorter hospital stays and include much lower risks. This, in turn, will lead to fewer malpractice suits.

Since virtual reality surgery has never been performed on a human being, several questions arise dealing with its use. What would happen if blood spurted onto a camera lens? What if a circuit malfunctions in the mechanical arm, or in the computer? It would seem essential that there be a backup safety system in the device to deal with these problems. In addition, a doctor should be with the patient at all times in case anything goes wrong.

Once questions are answered, there should be no hesitation in approving telesurgery for general use. This is an extraordinary innovation which will save many lives and benefit the human race for years to come. u


This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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