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Northeast Georgia Medical Center is first in state to perform robotic angioplasty
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Dr. J. Jeffrey Marshall, medical director of Cardiac Catheterization Labs at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, performs robotic angioplasty at the hospital. - photo by For The Times

Robotic surgery might seem like a technique more likely to be seen in science fiction than real life, but it’s becoming a reality in Gainesville.

Northeast Georgia Medical Center is the first and only hospital in Georgia to regularly perform robotic angioplasty.

The robotic device gives physicians more precision and stability while performing the procedure, which opens blocked arteries with a stent or balloon, restoring blood flow to the heart during a heart attack.

Since May 2011, the hospital has participated in clinical trials of the device, CorPath 200. The Food and Drug Administration approved the device in July of this year.

“It’s remarkable to be the first hospital in the state for this ground-breaking advancement in heart care. And since we were part of the clinical trial for the robotic equipment, we already have more than a year of experience with these procedures,” said Dr. Jeffery Marshall, medical director of Cardiac Catheterization Labs at the medical center.

Traditional angioplasty required cardiologists to stand beside the patient on a table and guide their small wires and equipment through the femoral artery in the leg to the heart, a distance of around 110 centimeters.  Imaging equipment used to display the procedure inside the body puts doctors and staff at risk for radiation exposure. Though the staff and physicians wear lead vests to prevent exposure, regular radiation could cause health problems later in life.

Doctors perform several of these and similar procedures daily while patients may only have one such procedure in their lifetimes.

To operate the CorPath 200, doctors sit behind a lead-shielded cockpit, which better protects them from radiation. Two joysticks control how the robotic devices move through the body, which doctors observe from four screens in the cockpit.

Dr. Mark Leimbach, chairman of the Department of Cardiology at the medical center and an interventional cardiologist, said the robotic equipment “is simply amazing.”

“It gives added precision and control to the procedure because it’s, in essence, an extra set of robotic hands that are on the equipment and allows me to control it in finer motions and ... to put stability on the equipment,” Leimbach said.

Leimbach, Marshall and Dr. Prad Tummala, interventional cardiologist at Northeast Georgia Heart Center, went to Corindus Robotic Development Center in Boston for specialized training for the device.

“It’s a new, different feeling. You’re now operating with a different sensation in your hands. The visualization is better so I’m closer to the images I’m looking at and that helps. Also, I suppose as we all areusing technology more and more, computer interfaces are becoming more natural for all of us,” Leimbach said.

Though the procedure required some getting used to for physicians, patients are unlikely to notice changes.

“From their point of view there really is no difference, and that is a good thing,” Leimbach said. “It hasn’t radically changed the procedure for our patients, which for the most part has been a pretty safe and comfortable procedure.”

Leimbach said he thinks the device is another step toward the future of health care.

“I think it is the wave of the future and we will see in cardiology just as in the rest of medicine much, much more use of computerized assistance,” Leimbach said.

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