Alexandria Area High School was buzzing on Monday.

That's because students at AAHS were trying their hand at Alomere Health's new da Vinci Xi Surgical System, a machine used in surgeries to help doctors be more precise with their operations. Students used their fingers and feet to control the robot's "arms" and perform specific tasks, such as flipping a penny or grabbing a piece of rubber set out for them to experiment with.

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"It was different. I basically felt like I was in a video game," said Nate Schneiderhan, a junior at AAHS. "Medical technology is advancing. You can tell just by using that. Picking up the penny, it was kind of crazy."

Schneiderhan said it felt like he was using his own fingers rather than controlling the machine with them. He was the first volunteer Monday afternoon, and plenty of students had their chance to give it a go, as well.

"I think it can really relate well with high school populations. Video games, anything where you're using your hand-eye coordination, it does make a difference," said Dr. Demetra Heinrich, an obstetrics and gynecology doctor at Alomere. "It does help to have kids seeing that applied, like OK, these skills could be helpful later on."

The da Vinci machine is a new purchase for Alomere Health, and CEO Carl Vaagenes said it was a no-brainer to bring it to Alexandria Area High School for the students to try out.

"It's brand new for our community and our facility," he said. "We're very involved in the (high school's) health care academy program. ... We have a vested interest in seeing the academies program be successful and the students here having the opportunity to see what's out there."

For students like Schneiderhan, Monday's experience was eye opening.

"Right now, I'm looking at business (career paths)," he said. "But after doing that, it kind of persuades me. That's really, really cool to me."

A big step forward

The da Vinci robot is much more than a fun toy. Heinrich said it will be a valuable addition to the tools available at Alomere - for both doctors and patients.

"With the robot, it gives you shorter stays for patients in the hospital, smaller incisions. When you're in there, it's a 3D picture so you can see the tissue planes much better," she said. "And you can fully articulate the instruments, meaning that it's almost as good as having your hand in there and doing a big, open procedure, but with less incisions."

The da Vinci machine improves precision, lessens the potential for infection and reduces hospitalization time, Vaagenes said. While the machine might not be the best option for every single patient, it's important that surgeons and patients alike have access to it without having to travel too far.

With its installation this month, Alomere will be the first hospital in central Minnesota to introduce robotic-assisted surgery, Vaagenes said.

The technology itself has been around since 2004, though it has also evolved over the past decade and a half.

"The precision, everything about this machine is just amazing technology," Vaagenes said. "We already have highly-skilled surgeons in our community, and this will just help the surgeons have another tool at their (disposal)."

Monday was all about giving the high school students a look into the medical world through first-hand application. And while deciding on a career path is still in the works for students like Schneiderhan, the da Vinci experience gives them even more to think about.

"Stuff like this, it excites me and makes me want to pursue a career that's in the medical field," Schneiderhan said. "I have to see what's out there still."