Leonardo da Vinci had the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in glorious Renaissance Florence to inspire his early innovative mind, and Thomas Jefferson could putter about in Monticello, in the Virginia countryside, sketching inventions after leading a nation. But the myth of the modern inventor, silicon heroes like Bill Gates and the Google guys, says that the humbler the surroundings – a parent’s basement or a friend’s garage – the more likely genius will strike.
By that logic, Dr. Michael R. Treat must be on to something.
Just beyond the elevated tracks of the 1 and 9 subway that cut through the Riverdale section of the Bronx, next door to Williams Funeral Home and an Off-Track Betting parlor, in a ramshackle single-story strip mall, Dr. Treat is hard at work on an invention he hopes will change the way surgeons work in the operating room.
“Meet Penelope,” Dr. Treat said, motioning toward a robotic arm poised over a set of surgical tools. “She is one hot little number.”
And Penelope is looking for a job.
She is meant to replace the scrub nurse, the person in the operating room who hands the surgeon the tools of surgery. Responding to the ever-widening shortage of nurses in the country, and looking to deal with a problem that frustrated him as a working surgeon, Dr. Treat and his team of tech whizzes are working feverishly to get Penelope ready for her public debut.
New York-Presbyterian Hospital has agreed to test Penelope in March in the operating room on a simple removal of a benign cyst. If all goes well, Dr. Treat dreams of putting a Penelope in every hospital across the country.
“The robot should be able to do everything a nurse can,” Dr. Treat said. And because she is a computer, he said, she can even do some things better. “Leaving instruments inside patients still happens,” he said. The hope is that Penelope, able to keep track of tools as they come and go, will put an end to that.
Dr. Treat has the nervous energy of a schoolboy with a crush when he talks about Penelope. He looks a bit like Ralph Nader with glasses – tall, thin and somewhat in need of sunlight. In other words, he does not look like a would-be Hell’s Angel. But outside the Bronx lab, a former clinic lent to the team by New York-Presbyterian, sits his Suzuki Savage motorcycle, waiting until the good doctor feels the need for speed.
“I may look like Robert Ford, but I feel like Jesse James,” Dr. Treat said, quoting a Bob Dylan lyric. “It’s a very hot little bike,” he added.
“Hot” is a word Dr. Treat favors.
When considering a name for the invention, Dr. Treat said, he looked for the hot wife of a Greek hero, settling eventually on Penelope, the wife of Ulysses.
“She was faithful, resourceful and clever,” Dr. Treat said, going on rapidly about her other attributes, describing her testing of suitors and her legendary beauty, until the conversation was directed elsewhere.