How Robodoc is king of the keyhole for surgeons, and patients, at Stevenage’s Lister Hospital

The initial insertion of channels into the patient is the only time the surgeon stands at the table

The initial insertion of channels into the patient is the only time the surgeon stands at the table - the rest of the time he will probably have his back to the patient as he works through the machine - Credit: Archant

Editor John Francis jumps at the chance to observe state-of-the-art surgery

Progress can be checked in real time, but procedures are also recorded for later assessment

Progress can be checked in real time, but procedures are also recorded for later assessment - Credit: Archant

TV dramas and blockbuster films love to zoom in on the life and death decisions, the beads of sweat on the surgeon’s brow, the crash team’s desperate efforts to bring someone back from the brink. We’ve all seen dramatic episodes in the operating theatre, once removed.

Real life, reassuringly, is much more mundane.

Sitting in the audience at the East & North Herts NHS Trust’s annual meeting a while ago, I was so fascinated by consultant Jim Adshead’s account of the cutting edge robotic surgery on offer at Stevenage’s Lister Hospital that I asked whether I could see it at the sharp end.

It took a while to set up, but that’s how I ended up spending a whole afternoon in an operating theatre, trying not to get in the way and watching an anonymous patient having their cancerous prostate removed.

Surgeons can work side by side, allowing for precise training and guidance

Surgeons can work side by side, allowing for precise training and guidance - Credit: Archant


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By turns it was fascinating, illuminating, and surprisingly dull compared to those TV dramas we all know and love – but as I stepped out of my scrubs my overwhelming feelings were of reassurance, respect, and gratitude for a National Health Service that provides this level of life-saving skill as part of the package.

The surgery itself comes at the end of a measured process of consultation, assessment and preparation, and even when the patient is on the table nobody is in any rush to get things under way.

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Great care is taken with positioning the subject so that when the probe channels of the huge and intimidating Da Vinci machine – it looks a bit like Robocop crossed with an all terrain transport from Star Wars, but rooted firmly to the floor – make contact the surgeons know exactly where they are going and what they are after. It’s precise, it’s painstaking, it’s...well, surgical.

Through the channels go the instruments – nothing as crude as a scalpel, the key tool looks more like a tiny pair of serrated dressmaking scissors, which can cauterise and seal as it goes, so there’s far less disruption and damage to your insides as the surgeons home in on their target.

High-def TV allows everyone but the patient to see what's going on

High-def TV allows everyone but the patient to see what's going on - Credit: Archant

There are no raised voices. Nobody is breaking out in a sweat. If it wasn’t for the blue scrubs and the giant TV display tracking and recording every step of the process, you could be in a library.

Once the instruments are installed, the surgeons turn their back on the patient – still supervised at every step by nurses and a watchful consultant anaesthetist – and get down to business.

You’d need years of training before you could take charge, but the control unit is surprisingly familiar to a lay observer – there’s a touch of the fairground arcade ‘grab a gift’ machine, overtones of a computer game without the frenetic soundtrack and simulated smackdowns, and echoes of sci-fi journeys into unfamiliar realms.

But that’s all fantasy. This is reality, and sometimes you have to step back and remind yourself that what you can see through the magnifying display is the inside of another human being, depending on the skill and dedication of other human beings to make them well again.

The surgery proceeds, fraction of an inch by fraction of an inch. Everything goes to plan. It’s just another day at the office. No drama, which is just as it should be.

The machine is pretty pricey to buy and operate, and it’s only part of the multi-million pound upgrade which has transformed the Lister in recent years.

So what’s in it for us? With early diagnosis and prompt action, the use of robots means much less intrusion and trauma for the patient, and much faster recovery times – incredibly, after an afternoon in theatre, our patient will probably be on his way home within 48 hours.

That’s good for him, and good for the rest of us who need to use the NHS.

The Lister’s status as a centre of excellence – there’s been robotic surgery on site since 2009 – means it attracts top talent, too. That’s more good news for patients, if you ask me.

Next week I’ll be talking to someone who has actually been through the process, to tell you how it works from the receiving end.

But at the end of an afternoon watching the team go about their work, it struck me that I wasn’t just a spare part – I helped pay for all this. So did you.

I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth every penny – I’m pretty sure our anonymous patient will back me up.

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