The 'future' is here at BMC, with new surgical robot and exoskeleton technology

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PITTSFIELD — Dr. Marcella Bradway got her first glimpse at robotic surgery during a conference in 1999.

"I said, `Oh my God, that's the future,'" said Bradway, chairwoman of the surgery department at Berkshire Medical Center.

For Bradway, who specializes in colorectal surgery, the future has arrived.

BMC officials this week unveiled the robot that will allow her to take advantage of the technology, which she expects will also speed up her patient's recovery times.

The surgery department has welcomed a $2.1 million da Vinci robot to the hospital, an upgrade from its previous version. For rehabilitation patients who suffer from spinal cord injuries, an EksoGT robotic exoskeleton will help them relearn how to stand and walk.

"This technology is improving, improving, improving all the time," Bradway said.

On Wednesday, the new da Vinci robot was stationed in the hospital's lobby and members of the public took turns using stationary remote controllers to pick up and move coins and dollar bills that were located in what represented a patient's abdomen a few feet away.

While many surgeons at the hospital have been using an older da Vinci robot on their patients since 2008, the equipment wasn't appropriate for Bradway's colorectal surgeries because it was fixed to one area of the abdomen.

The new version can move more freely, with improved binocular vision, so Bradway will begin her training on the machinery next month.

Robotic surgery is minimally invasive and decreases the blood loss in patients because of the magnified view of blood vessels, Bradway said.

The training is an extension of laparoscopic surgery, also minimally invasive, which Bradway already performs on her patients.

For colon procedures, Bradway expects the new da Vinci to be even better than laparoscopic surgery, which uses small instruments in poking motions, because it has "wrist action," she said.

"The new technology moves around the patient like a surgeon," said Josie Gaudette, robotics coordinator at Berkshire Health Systems, parent company of BMC.

By speeding up recovery time, and minimizing blood loss, robotic surgery can also reduce opiate prescriptions, according to Diana Vallone, vice president of surgical services.

"Everyone wants the new toy," Gaudette said of the number of surgeons booking procedure with the machine. "With only one robot they had to wait."

BMC already performs about 300 robotic surgeries a year. With the new robot, wait times may shorten, Gaudette said.

While the robotic technology is a great asset to the hospital, is is not a perfect fit for every surgery, Bradway noted.

"Patients who have had a lot of previous surgeries may not be good candidates," she said.

Robotic surgeries are ideal for the cases where surgeons need a magnified vision of the incision. For some patients coming in for a minor surgery, the equipment may be overkill, officials said.

Doctors, nurses and members of the public were drawn away from the surgery equipment Wednesday, when rehab patient Travis Chuck demonstrated how the exoskeleton may assist in his recovery from an incomplete spinal cord injury.

Dozens of people gathered in the lobby of the hospital, when Chuck was moved from his wheelchair to the $160,000 piece of equipment, which allowed him to stand and walk across the room on his own.

Through rehabilitation work, the exoskeleton helps patients with spinal cord injuries, who are unable to walk on their own, relearn the process while exercising the unused muscles, according to Dr. Jessica Dellaghelfa, a doctor of physical therapy at the hospital.

Its software allows physical therapists to alter the level of the assistance it provides the patients, she said.

Chuck, who suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury in July 2017, uses maximum assist.

"If it notices someone is slacking somewhere, it will speed up," she said.

It also decreases the number of people needed to help a patient practice walking, which can be labor intensive, Dellaghelfa said.

The hospital has used the exoskeleton on three patients so far, but Dellaghelfa expects that 15 outpatients are eligible for it.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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