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LONG-DISTANCE SURGERY

Before the world's attention was diverted by terrorist attacks and talk of war, something remarkable occurred in two places an ocean apart. The implications are far more far-reaching than the distance in miles.

On Sept. 7, surgeons in Mount Sinai Medical Center in Manhattan used remote-control robotic surgery to remove the diseased gall bladder of a 68-year-old woman in Strasbourg, France.

This was the first attempt at long-distance telesurgery, a technique still far from being widespread. Time lag in the transmission of commands remains a factor, but the promise this technology holds is enormous.

Using a special fiber-optic communication system, a medical team was able to achieve a delay of only 80 milliseconds each way. The surgeon was able to see the results of his commands to the robot within 160 milliseconds.

Scientists and medical professionals now are talking about surgery extending from an earthbound doctor to a patient in the space station. In a sense that most Americans now can envision, there's discussion of battlefield surgery conducted by a team of doctors stationed at a far-away hospital - although the practicalities of maintaining a communication link in the heat of battle still pose challenges.

Telesurgery also has potential implications on the health care industry, because patients in remote areas, or even urban centers lacking doctors experienced in specialized types of surgeries, might benefit from surgical teams that have gotten increasingly better at their work through handling high volumes of similar operations.

"The barriers of space and distance have collapsed," said Dr. Jacques Marescaux, one of the surgeons who performed the gall bladder operation.

The irony is the backdrop against which this medical advancement has taken place. But it remains encouraging that, during a time of talk of war and retribution, humanity still finds ways to advance.

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