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Getting intimate with the da Vinci robot


'Why is it called da Vinci?'

When I ask the surgeon this question, it is rather late in the day to be seeking information, but it's a small point that has intrigued me during the weeks leading up to my tryst with da Vinci Robotic Assisted Prostatectomy. I have been thoroughly educated during those weeks about the various options available and this is the one I have chosen.

By the time I get round to asking this, the hour has come. I'm standing around in the operating theatre chatting to my surgeon. Wearing one of those flowing white hospital gowns that tie in a bow at the back and looking slightly distrait despite my studied attempts at a casual-nothing-fazes-me equanimity, I look like a Roman senator who's just made it to the Ides of March meeting but is still unsure about the order of business.

'That's it there,' says the surgeon, 'that's the da Vinci robot.' He waves a cheerful arm in the direction of what struck me then as a large, chunky structure which Field Marshall Erwin 'Desert Fox' Rommel, or Major General George 'Blood and Guts' Patton would have instantly recognised, but I wouldn't vouch for the accuracy of my recall. The bustle of gloved, white-clad, masked and plastic-hatted people in the operating theatre was alien territory for me and, I have to admit, more and more daunting.

'Why is it called ...' I started to ask again, but my query was lost among a new round of instructions. Even my smiling, affable surgeon was getting right down to business. He explained that they would be putting an adhesive on my back and that it might be a bit cold. This happened even as he spoke: invisible hands parted my gown and stroked my spine with stuff that was exquisitely cold. At the same time, the surgeon pointed out to me a peculiar sort of valley in the smooth surface of the operating table. 

'Put your bum in there,' he said, 'wriggle round till you're comfortable then lie back.' I knew very well that when I lay back, securely anchored by my bum in the space provided, the adhesive would hold me in its grip. I also knew, from earlier briefings, that the reason for all this was that, once anaesthesitised, I would be tipped upside down and that the da Vinci would have its way with me while I was inverted, damn nearly vertical.

I knew this, but I tried not to think about it because my imaginings, unimpressed by adhesives and bum holds, always had me crumpling ignominiously head first to the floor at the feet of the da Vinci which, outraged, would then take who knows what umbrage. It is a bloody robot after all. Haven't these people seen The Terminator?

In the nature of these encounters, I was soon wheeled along to have a pleasant chat with the anaesthetist — a lovely woman whose mask, gloves, gown and hat could scarcely obscure what I immediately recognised as her innate humanity — in the course of which she painlessly introduced something into the back of my hand and ...

Suddenly it was four hours later, Rommel and Patton were barnstorming off to new adventures, I was horizontal — had I ever really been upside down? Surely that was a surgeon's twisted humour — and flowering with tubes. 'Hello there,' says a sympathetic voice, 'you're back then.'

Well, yes and no. I had just been through a bruising tussle with the da Vinci robot. The operation, as my surgeon would tell me a little later, had been 'excellent' and a 'complete success'. Later still, and more importantly, he would report that the pathology was all 'clear'.

And it was, as he had promised, 'minimally invasive': I had five small punctures, as if I'd been in a knife fight and hadn't landed a blow, each covered by an up-market version of those circular band aids we used to put on youthful scraped knees and knuckles.

Stuck to me or inserted here and there were some additional adornments which, while they might usefully add to the picture for something like the Robotic Surgeon's Monthly or The da Vinci Surgical System Newsletter, need not detain us now and would in any case be out of place in Eureka Street, where the trajectory of inquiry is physically and spiritually somewhat higher. 

'Why is it called the da Vinci method?' I asked my surgeon at last as we concluded our final consultation.

'Oh,' he said, with a dismissive gesture, 'it's just that the machine itself is Italian. Da Vinci is the registered Italian trademark.'

Disappointing. I'd been thinking that I might emerge from my da Vinci meeting with the promised five small holes in my gut, a space where the prostate had been, and a mysterious, enigmatic smile. 

Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is the award winning author of A Fine and Private Place and The Temple Down the Road. He was awarded the 2010 National Biography Award for Manning Clark — A Life

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, da vinci robot, surgery, medicine, Prostatectomy, anaesthetist



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Existing comments

Da Vinci - the great painter, sculptor, architect and engineer now has another string to his bow. He has a surgical machine named after him! Cultivate that mysterious, enigmatic smile anyway Brian.

Pam | 02 March 2012  

Thanks, Brian. I vacillated between "too much information" and laughter. Laughter won out.

ErikH | 02 March 2012  

Great to read your article, Brian. I was a student of yours at Flinders Uni. way back in the mid 70's and thought you were the best teacher I had ever had. Also, loved your books especially "The Temple Down the Road". I hope you have survived the medical machinations, God bless, Maureen

MAUREEN KEATING | 07 March 2012  

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