AN ANGLICAN priest has become the first patient to undergo eye surgery performed by a robot.
The Revd Dr William Beaver, an Associate Priest at St Mary’s, Iffley, in Oxford, described the groundbreaking operation he went last month as a “fairytale”.
Surgeons at the city’s John Radcliffe Hospital used the robot to penetrate his right eye and restore its sight by removing a membrane that was 0.01mm thick growing over the retina. Robot surgery is commonplace for many operations, but, until now, the need for a precise degree of control has ruled it out for optical procedures.
The new technology, developed by a commercial company based at Eindhoven University of Technology, in Holland, uses a computer and seven motors to translate the surgeon’s manipulation of a joystick into minute movements of a special needle.
Dr Beaver, 70, who is a decorated Vietnam veteran who was once communications director at Church House, realised that his sight was deteriorating in June. “I was grumpy. I went into the optometrists and said ‘Your correction isn’t working you need to re-do it.’
“I should have gotten suspicious when, first, two people came in the room, and then three. It seemed only about five-and-a-half seconds before I was sitting in the ophthalmology department at the hospital. It really was very rapid, because they needed to arrest it. I could not read, my central vision was going, and it was expanding out into the periphery at the speed of lightning.”
Then he discovered that he could be the guinea pig for the pioneering new surgery. “It was extraordinary,” he said. “It was the combination of presenting this rapid-onset blindness at the same time as the regulators said it's OK to test it out on a real person. It came together at the top of the mountain.”
He said that he believed a covenant existed between the NHS and the public that, in return for a lifetime of care, if one was asked to participate in a research programme “you do it with a heart and a half. So with that kind of mindset I barrelled on in without any problem.”
Two days after the operation, Professor Robert MacLaren, who led the surgery, removed his eye patch. “He asked me to bend my head and look at my watch, and I could see the time,” Dr Beaver said. “I have to go through three or four months of it getting better day by day. The progression is incremental, and I notice it.
“It’s been an interesting experience. Someone asked if I felt happy. I don’t want happiness for myself: we want happiness for other people. For it to come back and be centred on me when I should be worrying about others is not quite why we are put on this earth. But if it makes me able to meet challenges and perform better, then let’s rock and roll.”