Surgery at 20,000 Feet

Twenty thousand feet above the Atlantic – in a specially equipped Airbus-300 – a staff of doctors and medics provided by the University of Bordeaux, France recently demonstrated that performing surgery in the absence of gravity is possible.

The procedure wasn’t anything “too serious” – although the removal of a tumor from a patient’s arm is nothing to laugh at. Still, the fact that the intervention was carried out in a weightless environment opens the door to the possibility of conducting surgical procedures in an orbiting space station.

Remarked project leader Dominique Martin, “We don’t want to blow this out of proportion, but this experiment is important to verify that an operation can be carried out in the absence of gravityâÂ?¦”

Easier said than done. In order to conduct such an operation, the proper environment had to be created. That mean installing a surgical team comprised of three surgeons, 2 assistants, and of course one patient – in this case: 46 year old Philippe Sanchot, who had a benign tumor on his right arm that needed to be surgically removed.

Once over the Atlantic, the Airbus-300 went into “micro-gravity” mode – the closest thing to weightlessness without actual being in space. To achieve this, the airplane repeated a line of site trajectory that started at 6100 meters, peaked at 8400 meters and dropped suddenly back to 6100 meters. Every time the Airbus dropped, there was a “phase of micro-gravity” that lasted approximately 22 seconds. This circuit was repeated 32 times, which gave the medical team exactly 11 minutes to operate and remove the tumor.

It should be noted that the medical team was given airsickness pills before the flight and was under strict orders ‘not to eat or drink” at least five hours prior to take-off in order to avoid nausea.

The medical team was literally anchored to the floor with weighted boots and belts. The patient was strapped down and all the medial tools, machines and instruments were magnetized in order to stay put on the operating table and in trays.

The operation itself was performed without incident. Remarked Sanchot, “âÂ?¦Nothing particularly impressive. Although to the team’s credit it went smoothly because we rehearsed it so many times before hand.”

This is just the first step towards operating in a weightless environment. Bigger questions remain: how to control bleeding in micro-gravity for example, or how the physicians will hold up when the operation is as complicated as say – an appendix or a gall bladder. “Vascular problems will definitely be a challenge,” adds Dr. Martin. In light of that, one of the next big challenges for the team will be “tele-surgery” where human surgeons will remain on the ground an attempt an operation using what they term “robo-docs” that can be controlled via satellite. Also on the horizon – the possibility of flying surgical centers where medics can perform operations immediately after take-off.

When it comes to modern medicine and saving lives, this not-so-routine operation really did prove that “the sky’s the limit.”

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