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At a California Hospital, the Surgeon with the Steadiest Hand Is a Robot Named Ole

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It’s about two feet long, weighs 50 pounds and does brain surgery. No, it’s not a dwarf doctor but Ole (pronounced OH-lee), the resident robot at the Memorial Medical Center of Long Beach, Calif. On April 11 Ole whirled into action to complete its initial diagnostic biopsy on a live patient. Its perfect performance made Memorial’s human doctors proud.

The world’s first neurosurgical robot, Ole is a computer controlled, six-jointed mechanical arm fitted with a modified hand. Its specialty is stereo-tactic neurosurgery, a technique for guiding needles or other instruments into predetermined points through a small hole drilled into the skull. In the operating room, Ole thus can aid doctors in brain tumor biopsies, abscess drainage and implantations of radioactive isotopes directly into tumors.

A team led by Yik San Kwoh, director of computer tomography research in Memorial’s radiology department, spent three years programming the robot’s skills. At Ole’s debut it worked in tandem with a CAT scanner, which helped doctors determine the target point inside the skull of a 52-year-old patient with brain lesions. After the drilling Kwoh watched a computer screen to guide a probe in Ole’s “hand” to the exact destination. A section of the patient’s brain tissue was removed and sent to the lab for tests. The patient under local anesthesia remained conscious throughout the delicate, four-hour-plus operation.

Why use a robot in place of a surgeon’s skilled hands? “No hand can match the robot’s precision,” Kwoh explains. “Ole is accurate to½000th of an inch.”

Kwoh, 39, who was born in China, came to the U.S. from Hong Kong in 1968, earned degrees in electrical engineering from Louisiana Tech University and a Ph.D. from USC. After joining Memorial’s research group, he worked on a variety of computer related projects that ultimately led to Ole (so dubbed to honor longtime hospital benefactor Svend Olsen). While Kwoh is already working on an improved Ole with even more refined skills, he quickly adds that robots will never drive surgeons out of operating rooms. “Rather, the robot relieves surgeons of routine tasks,” he says, “enabling the doctor to focus on what he can do best—taking care of the patient.”