By now you’ve likely heard: They did surgery on a grape. But you may not have heard that the device in the meme is the subject of lawsuits. The da Vinci Surgical System, which is manufactured by Intuitive Surgical and received FDA approval in 2000, may appear impressive when it’s being used to do surgery on a grape, but it’s come under fire in recent years for its association with higher risks of infections and complications in patients. So while everyone seems to be impressed that they did surgery on a grape, nobody seems to be asking why they did surgery on a grape — or whether it was safe.
For the uninitiated, “They did surgery on a grape” exploded as a viral meme a week ago, starting with a screencap from a video about the da Vinci Surgical System. The video, which was published by business and tech site Cheddar on July 7, 2017, used edited footage from an even older video, but crucially, added the mind-numbingly dull onscreen caption, “They did surgery on a grape.”
In the original video — watch it above — posted in 2010 by Edward Hospital in Naperville, Illinois, you can see the mesmerizing surgery in which the tiny instruments delicately skin a grape.
The video itself is neat, if not exactly meme-worthy. But it took off when, inspired by the oddly dry and descriptive Cheddar video, Instagram meme page simpledorito posted a screenshot and added a matter-of-fact caption: “They did surgery on a grape.”
From there, the meme took flight, with the initial versions making similar jokes about the dry caption, packing each post with as many mentions of “They did surgery on a grape” as possible. Subsequent iterations spanned the usual meme spectrum between conventional and avant-garde.
But beneath the absurdist meme, there lies a darker reality: The da Vinci Surgical System has been plagued by legal claims for years.
The robotic surgery device, which is supposed to enable doctors to perform surgeries with fewer incisions, costs hospitals millions of dollars to purchase — not to mention the hours of training for surgeons. But despite its promise as a less invasive surgical device, the da Vinci Surgical System was one of the subjects of the recent Netflix documentary series The Bleeding Edge, in which filmmaker Kirby Dick investigated a range of medical devices that are still on the market despite causing harm to patients. The documentary focused specifically on women’s health, and the da Vinci Surgical System, which is most often used for hysterectomies and other gynecological surgeries, fit the bill.
In the documentary, Jennifer Nelson tells the story of how her hysterectomy, performed with a da Vinci device, went wrong. She endured multiple corrective surgeries, a colostomy, infections, and months of physical therapy after a surgery that typically takes patients just six weeks to recover.
“I have pain always, deal with fecal impact since my colostomy reversal, can only sleep on my back, and live daily with a stomach that resembles what the Bride of Frankenstein’s might look like,” Nelson reports.
And she’s not alone. In October 2017, Teresa Hershey told Mercury News that she’s had 10 corrective surgeries in the seven years following a hysterectomy performed with a da Vinci device. Following her discharge from the hospital after the initial procedure in 2010, Hershey experienced severe pain. According to court documents, doctors later determined that her bowel had been perforated, leading to an infection. This complication is common among patients who receive surgery with the da Vinci device, according to various claims and lawsuits against Intuitive.
In the years since, Hershey has been fighting to hold Intuitive Surgical accountable for the pain and suffering she has endured as a result, and her case against Intuitive is currently before Santa Clara County Superior Court.
In 2014, Intuitive set aside $67 million to settle product-liability claims — it’s had 3,000 such claims from 2004 to 2013 — reported Ethan Baron for Mercury News, but has not disclosed how many claims were settled.
In a somewhat related matter, Intuitive paid $43 million in June to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by shareholders who claimed that the company violated securities law by “making false and misleading statements and omitting certain material facts in certain public statements and in the company’s filings with the SEC,” reported Fink Densford for Mass Device.
For now, feel free to enjoy the final days of this declining meme, but as you do, keep in mind that the grape may have ongoing complications, much like other recipients of da Vinci-assisted surgeries.