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Tech Update: Physicians Get Outfitted for Weightlessness

The zero gravity suit may sound like something from a NASA training program, but for interventional radiologists, it is helping to address something more terrestrial: ergonomics. Because these physicians regularly use X-ray, fluoroscopy and other imaging techniques to perform minimally-invasive procedures, radiation is a regular part of the job.

Normally, radiologists suit up with a heavy lead jacket, not unlike the ones most of us have worn for a dental X-ray. While a few minutes in this vest isn’t so bad, wearing these protective shields for hours takes a serious toll on muscles and joints.

“The old suits are very, very heavy,” says George So, MD, vice chief of the Department of Radiology at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. “Every time you used one, your back would be sore.” In addition, says Dr. So, interventional procedures are now more complex, resulting in longer operating times and more hours wearing the burdensome extra weight.

The zero gravity suit, which looks like a long apron, addresses these orthopedic and exposure issues by hanging from the ceiling, resulting in “zero” weight on the back and joints. Physicians wear a magnetic vest and are able to attach to the suit prior to surgery and remove it when not in use.

“When you walk into the operating room, you snap in and the doctor becomes one with the suit,” says Dr. So. “You can take it on and off while in the interventional suite. With the other lead suit, you would have to put it on earlier and wear it the whole time. This suit is easier to use as needed.”

Nicknamed the “Iron Man suit” because of its similarity to the superhero’s body armor, the shielding also reduces total body radiation dose because the lead is thicker than a traditional vest. A leaded face shield also helps reduce radiation exposure to the eyes.

Since the suit is suspended from the ceiling, only one person can use it at a time. Generally, this is the person closest to the radiation source—the physician—so nurses and technicians still wear the lead vests.

Torrance Memorial has had the zero gravity suit for almost a year and is one of the few hospitals in the area to have the technology. “It is not very common, and we got it before a lot of facilities,” says Dr. So.

Due to its popularity, all the new operating suites in Torrance Memorial’s new patient tower—currently under construction—will be equipped with the zero gravity suit. This includes vascular surgery and cardiology, in addition to interventional radiology.

And that is likely to please all those wearing the zero gravity suit during the long hours performing surgery. “I prefer the Iron Man suit to the lead apron. It takes a little getting used to—it’s a tad more cumbersome—but once you get it, you love it. I used to have back problems all the time,” says Dr. So. “This has really helped us quite a bit.”

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