Million-dollar 'arm' revolutionizes the operating room

Jacob Robertson was flying more than nine metres in the air at Riverglade Motocross, ready to descend, when his feet missed the pegs of his motorbike. He slammed full force onto the bike, then into a ditch, and broke his back.

Friends of the Moncton Hospital raising money to buy an O-arm, which gives doctors 3-dimensional images

The O-arm, which costs about $1 million, has changed how some surgeons work, and Moncton Hospital wants one of its own. (Horizon Health Network)

Jacob Robertson was flying more than nine metres in the air at Riverglade Motocross, ready to make his descent, when his feet missed the pegs of his Yahama motorbike.

His body slammed full force onto the seat of the bike, propelling him more than three metres into a ditch. 

Doctors at the Moncton Hospital had no doubt Robertson had broken his spine and told him he might never walk again. 

Jacob Robertson, shown here after a serious crash on his motorbike, feels lucky the hospital happened to have an O-arm on a trial basis when he was brought in with a broken back. (Jake Robertson/Facebook)

But luckily, the hospital just happened to be trying out an "O-arm," a nearly $1 million piece of operating room equipment that has revolutionized how surgeons work.  

Moncton Hospital, which now wants a permanent O-arm of its own, estimates that 300 patients a year would benefit.

Friends of the Moncton Hospital are raising money for one.

More precise picture

The O-arm is a large digital imaging machine that helps surgeons see a three-dimensional picture of their patients and gives them an advantage that a simple two-dimensional imaging machine cannot.

"The technology has existed for about a decade," said Dr. Charbel Fawaz, the chief of neurosurgery at Moncton Hospital.

"The O-arm for is a complete game-changer in the operating room, in the neurological world as well as the spine surgery world," he said. The "first and most important advantage is much better precision and accuracy inside the operating room."

The O-arm, which is typically used in spinal surgery, acts like a navigator for the instruments held by the surgeon, and allows them to avoid major nerves and long vessels in the spinal region.

That's the vision for the future.- Dr. Neil Manson , orthopedic surgeon in Saint John 

The second advantage is the machine is portable.

Surgeons can have the O-arm in two operating rooms at roughly the same time, Fawaz said. The arm is only used for particular work within an operation, not for an entire procedure.

"Let's say, for example, there is a big tumour case that is going on, or big scoliosis case that is going on that could take four, five, or six hours," Fawaz said. "And let's say there's a trauma, and the patient needs to be rushed to the operating room at the same time."

Jake Robertson, and his father, Dana, at his graduation. (Jake Robertson/Facebook)

"We can have the O-arm available for both cases because even though the length of the case would be four, five or six hours, the time we need the O-arm inside that operating room would be only 15 to 20 minutes."

It has other benefits, too. 

The arm reduces surgical times and blood loss for patients.

And it reduces radiation exposure for both patients and the surgical team, who would normally be exposed to higher amount through various scans at different stages of the operation, Fawaz said.

He said orthopedic surgeons can also use the device in some of their procedures.

As for Motocross enthusiast Jacob Robertson, after surgeons brought in the demo O-arm for the operation on his back, he is getting physiotherapy at the Moncton Hospital and said he is doing really well.

Since Robertson's surgery he has begun to play hockey using a sled but expects to walk again. (Jake Robertson/Facebook)

Saint John has one

The O-arm is already in use at the Saint John Regional Hospital and 14 other health centres across Canada.

Saint John got its O-arm in April 2015.

Dr. Neil Manson said the equipment has changed everything about the way his operating room works.

"Some specific things that I would [have] done for the last 11 years have changed completely," Manson said.

He said the tool has allowed him to work more safely and work better.

"That's the vision for the future," he said. "The flow has changed, the centre of attention has changed, how we get the job done has changed."

Safety a selling point

Manson said higher risk-surgeries can be made less risky because of the extra dimension the O-arm provides. Something a regular C-arm does not allow for.

He, too, feels the lack of radiation exposure for staff and patients is a huge selling point.

"The safety factor is amazing, the staff no longer have to wear heavy lead gowns," said Manson.

Overall, h's grateful for the O-Arm.

"It's important to say that in Saint John, we're super thankful for it." 

About the Author

Nathalie Sturgeon


Nathalie Sturgeon is a reporter for CBC New Brunswick based in Fredericton. She is a recent graduate from the journalism program at St. Thomas University. She is from Blackville.

With files from Information Morning Moncton