Sporting an augmented reality headset and holding a drill, 16-year-old Olivia Mielke had to ask: “Would you let me into your operating room?”
Dr. Chris Hills of Teton Orthopedics shook his head no, since the $250,000 spinal surgery equipment Mielke tried out was far from a video game.
On Nov. 17 bioengineering students at Jackson Hole High School took a field trip to St. John’s Health to learn about the latest in spinal surgery navigation.
“You used to have to dodge the view of a camera to do the surgery,” Hills said, motioning to a screen displaying a live CT-scan of the spinal model he was cutting. “But now I can see through a patient’s skin.”
Spinal cord surgery is extremely high-risk, yet Hills performs one almost every week. The augmented reality feature enables the physician to move freely without the fear of blocking a camera. The tech also allows for greater accuracy.
“One to two millimeters off could mean the difference of a nerve injury,” Hills explained.
Since the simulation is so precise, the surgery involves only small incisions to insert big spinal screws, which yields lower blood loss and less risk of infection for the patient.
When Hills asked the class how much they thought the surgical screws cost, his question was met with shouts of guesses between $50 and $100.
“$3,000 to $5,000 apiece,” he said with a smile. “I did 10 screws in 19 minutes this week.”
Augmedics, the company that manufactures the augmented reality spinal simulation device, is one of few AR medical producers in the country. To be fair, few other surgeries are able to involve AR — a shoulder replacement is one other.
Hills wasn’t always sure he wanted to pursue orthopedics. In high school he was heavily considering a fighter pilot career, since “Top Gun” had just hit theaters.
“My buddy’s dad let me fly his plane, and I realized that was not for me,” the surgeon said. “But it worked out because I still get to wear fighter pilot glasses.”
He pointed to his retina display headset.
To become an orthopedic surgeon, Hills attended four years of medical school and completed five years of orthopedic residency, plus a one-year fellowship.
“I did 10 years of school after college, but you guys learned it in an hour,” he said jokingly to the class.
With so much education and risk, Jaime Perez, 17, decided to pass on the idea of becoming a spinal surgeon.
“I like health care, but I’m interested in architecture,” Perez said. “I signed up for this class because sometimes I have trouble with my body and wanted to learn more about how to prevent illness.”
When asked why Hills chose to pursue such a nerve-wracking track in medicine, he said it’s because he can help people accomplish tasks as simple as walking to a mailbox.
“It’s the highest risk injury, but the highest satisfaction,” the surgeon said, “and most of the time, they’re very successful.”