During an 18-year career in medicine, Daniel Saltzman — the chief of pediatric surgery at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital — has grown accustomed to looking at X-rays as if they were imperfect road maps of the human body.
He compares this exercise to looking at a one-dimensional traffic map on your smartphone and thinking about that image in three-dimensional terms in your mind.
Like any other road map, an X-ray image is an incomplete reduction of reality that can misrepresent challenges or include distortions, which explains why, even in 2017, high-stake surgeries can involve a shocking degree of guesswork and improvisation.
“That’s why medicine is still an art as much as a science,” Saltzman told The Washington Post.
For decades, increasingly sophisticated imaging techniques have allowed doctors to peer into the human body before they cut it open, reducing uncertainty and helping them prepare for complicated procedures. Now, advances in virtual reality may flip that dynamic on its head, allowing doctors to confront the unknown before they even enter the body.
The latest evidence of this revolutionary shift in health care is the successful separation of two conjoined newborn sisters in Minnesota. Until their separation in May, Paisleigh and Paislyn Martinez were attached from their lower chest to their bellybuttons — a condition known as thoraco-omphalopagus. Both babies survived the dangerous, nine-hour procedure, a development that Saltzman and other surgeons involved link directly to their use of virtual reality before surgery.
“It felt like I was working in the future,” Saltzman said. “It was extraordinarily exhilarating.”
Conjoined twins are extremely rare, occurring as infrequently as one of 200,000 live births to up to one in a million births, depending on how the babies are attached, according to University of Minnesota doctors.
Separating them is a risky procedure, though survival rates differ depending on how the siblings are connected and which organs they share, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. The Medical Center notes that twins “joined at the sacrum at the base of the spine have a 68 percent chance of successful separation, whereas, in cases of twins with conjoined hearts at the ventricular (pumping chamber) level, there are no known survivors.” In the latter case, the hearts are completely joined.
Image Credit: University of Minnesota