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Dr. Harvinder Sandhu is co-chief of HSS Spine at Hospital for Special Surgery at Stamford Health, the first healthcare provider in the region using the advanced computerized AR navigation technology for spine surgery. By using specialized goggles, Sandhu said he is able to see through tissue surrounding a patient’s spine and provide more precise and faster surgeries and, by extension, quicker recovery with less chance of infection.
Contributed photo / Hospital for Special Surgery at Stamford Health
STAMFORD — Brynn Blystone knows a thing or two about playing through pain.
As a veteran of the hotel and hospitality industry, the 36-year-old has gritted her teeth and put in shifts at restaurants and a butcher shop while suffering with degenerative disc disease. Doctors shaved a bulging spinal disc several years ago, and she underwent a series of painful injections aimed at quieting the nerve.
“But last fall,” the Norwalk resident said, “I was basically ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’ again.”
That was until she met Dr. Harvinder Sandhu, who told her he could use specialized goggles and augmented reality, or AR — something he likens to X-ray vision — to fix her back.
“He broke things down and told me what was going on and how he could attack it,” Blystone said. “I said, ‘Let’s go with technology.’ And I’ve got my life back.”
Sandhu is co-chief of HSS Spine at Hospital for Special Surgery at Stamford Health, the first healthcare provider in the region using the advanced computerized AR navigation technology for spine surgery. By using specialized goggles, Sandhu said he is able to see through tissue surrounding a patient’s spine and provide more precise and faster surgeries and, by extension, quicker recovery with less chance of infection.
The technology allows Sandhu to see an overlay of data pulled from MRIs and other technology superimposed on the patient’s spine, as well as written data visible in the corners of his visual field. The visible terrain means he can pinpoint areas without having to expose more markers along the spinal landscape, as is the case in more traditional surgery, he said.
And Sandhu doesn’t have to continually look back and forth from the incision to a computer screen because everything he needs is collected in the goggles a la Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator,” he said.
“We don’t have to be as invasive,” Sandhu said. “You can home in on the specific area. It’s more accurate than a human hand could be alone.”
Sandhu performed the first surgery using the technology at HSS Stamford Health on Jan. 28. The technology can be used to combat spinal stenosis, herniated discs, misaligned vertebrae and other common ailments, he said.
The surgeon can track progress, determine the position of surgical tools and implants and see CT scans and X-ray images superimposed on the site in real time, Sandhu said. The headset projects 3D navigation data onto the surgeon’s retina, he said.
The technology also allows a surgeon the freedom to course correct and alter a planned approach if need be, he said.
While training with the equipment, the doctor had a staffer take photos to show his children, who are used to the technology used in virtual reality games.
“They didn’t think their old dad knew anything about goggles and AR,” he said, laughing.
Woodstock, N.Y., resident Paul Solis-Cohen sought out Sandhu when the progressive pain and weakness of sciatica left him less able to enjoy his regular activities, which include playing tennis and bike riding. He said he had tried chiropractic and physical therapy and other remedies without help.
“I tried to find some relief, but I realized the only alternative I had left was surgery,” said Solis-Cohen, whose days sometimes include lifting 50-pound bales of hay on his Catskills farm.
Sandhu determined Solis-Cohen needed lumbar decompression surgery involving a laminectomy and spinal fusion of the L4 and L5 vertebrae. He performed the procedure in February.
“I went into the OR with pain down my leg and I was wheeled out pain free,” Solis-Cohen said.
Six months after the surgery, he is back to playing tennis and said he hopes to be able to bike comfortably on the cobblestone streets around his family’s vacation home in Mexico.
Blystone said she had a similar experience. She said she was up and walking the day after her surgery.
“It was the first time I stood upright again,” she said.
Since then, Blystone said she has been able to handle choppy boat and jet ski rides.
Sandhu said the AR technology is applicable to other surgical situations — from joint replacement to pinpointing brain tumors. And he expects patients to become more receptive to the “X-ray vision” approach.
“They love it,” he said. “What they’re still leery of is full robotics.
“At the end of the day, they want to know their surgeon is in the room and involved.”
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