UH brain surgeons use flight simulator technology to practice surgery, give patients peace of mind

Posted at 6:16 PM, Dec 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-12-08 18:23:57-05

They might seem completely different, but fighter pilots and brain surgeons actually have a lot in common. Their jobs are high risk and they have to get them done in a limited time frame, under a lot of stress. Their training is pretty similar, too. 

Tom Norton is a lucky guy.

A major-league pitcher for the Minnesota Twins in 1972, the avid outdoorsman survived a lightning strike in 1995.
And luck seems to be on his side again.

But before we explain that, let's get back to those pilots.

"Fighter pilots or jets pilots or even commercial pilots would always practice and rehearse what they were going to do in a simulator," noted Dr. Warren Selman, Chairman of Neurosurgery at University Hospitals. "And we've always thought, as surgeons, well this is very complex. Why can't we rehearse the same way?" 

Rewind to 1927, in Binghamton, New York. Edwin Link -- an aviation pioneer -- is building the world's first flight simulator.
It might not look very fancy, but Link's simulators trained half a million airmen during World War II.

It is the same technology that also trained Israeli fighter pilots Moty Avisar and Alon Geri.
"I was actually, the story goes, in a coffee shop and I overheard these two Israelis talking and they were actually in Cleveland to design the flight simulator for the F-16," recalled Dr. Selman. 
His curiosity was piqued.
"We started talking and I said, 'you know, that's exactly what we would like to do for surgery.'" 
And so "Surgical Theater" was born at University Hospitals.
"It allows us to take 2D images, whether a CAT scan or an MRI, and incorporate that into a 3-dimensional platform," explained Dr. James Wright, a fifth-year nuerosurgery resident at University Hospitals.

The technology provides a 3-D, 360-degree virtual reality experience, bringing a patient's anatomy to life and giving surgeons the chance to rehearse a procedure ahead of time. 

"Then it's just like a roadmap, going in with a GPS, you know. It pinpoints exactly where you're going," said Norton.

"It is a game changer, because really, if you think, what is a key to success in anything? It's really being able to visualize what you're going to do ahead of time," Dr. Selman said. "To visualize that success." 
After a year of unexplained vision issues, Norton is now experiencing surgical Theater for himself.

"The MRI showed I had a mass in there," he explained.

Norton had the chance to tour his own brain, seeing the reason for his blurry vision firsthand.
"After they showed me and everything, I'm pretty comfortable about it," he remarked.
Tom's doctors say the mass is benign, and once it's taken out, his eyesight should go back to normal.
"I think that's awesome that they can start showing you by the glasses and looking in there and seeing the reality of it, of what's going to happen," said Norton.
The technology is enhancing informed consent, as well as patient safety.
"Not only do I plan this," Dr. Selman explained, "But we take the same technology into the operating room, so that I know if I go 3 more millimeters, I'm going to encounter something I need to stay away from. So it makes surgery much safer. I've seen it before. It's a feeling of deja vu."

The Surgical Theater technology has now spread from University Hospitals to several other academic centers across the nation. UH only uses it for brain surgery right now but plans to incorporate it for spine surgery in the future.