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Published in the  Spring 2012 Issue of Join Us Magazine.

Robotic-assisted thoracic surgery hits the mark for area firefighter

Firefighter Danny Roell admits that some people gave him “strange looks” when he said he was having robotic-assisted surgery for a lung problem.

Danny Roell
 Danny Roell chose the benefits of robotic-assisted surgery.

“Sure, it’s new technology. But because of what robotic-assisted surgery offers, I felt 100 percent comfortable with it,” says Danny, 24, a graduate of Edgewood High School who lives in Trenton with his wife, Cristina.

In summer 2011, Danny had been diagnosed with stage three Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that affects the cells of the immune system, including the lymphatic system. Danny had completed a full course of chemotherapy to fight the cancer. But a follow-up scan in October revealed a new abnormality in lymph nodes right in front of the heart.

“We needed to determine if it was persistent lymphoma that had failed to respond to chemotherapy or something unrelated to his cancer,” reports cardiothoracic surgeon John M. Miller, MD.

Danny says his first thought was “Is the cancer winning?”

Surgery with Precision

“I offered Danny the option of robotic-assisted surgery,” says Dr. Miller, who has been performing robotic-assisted thoracic surgery at Atrium Medical Center since June, 2011.

Thoracic surgery treats conditions inside the thorax (chest), including conditions of the lungs, chest wall and diaphragm. Traditional thoracic surgery often involves a large incision, cutting muscle, and spreading the ribs with retractors for a surgeon to be able to see and operate on the area.

“Robotic-assisted surgery allows me to make tiny incisions and do complex work using miniaturized, precision instruments, seeing an amazing 3-D visual as I work,” Dr. Miller explains. “That makes for a better surgery. Not having to cut through muscle and spread ribs and other traditional surgical procedures makes for easier recovery.”

He told Danny that patients who have robotic-assisted surgery generally have significantly less pain, a shorter hospital stay, faster return to normal daily activities and, most importantly, the potential for better clinical outcomes.

“I liked Dr. Miller from the get-go,” Danny recalls. “When I’m on the job as a firefighter I need confidence, and confidence is what he has. Plus I liked everything I learned about robotic surgery.”

Better Accuracy = Better Outcome

John Miller MD
 John Miller, MD Cardiothoracic Surgeon and Medical Director of Cardiovacular Surgery Services.

Dr. Miller removed the abnormal lymph node in addition to a portion of the adjacent lung, which was adhered to that node. Given that unexpected finding, the accuracy of the robotic instruments was even more of an advantage. 

“Happily, a biopsy showed the removed area was most likely an infection – not more cancer,” said Danny. “Because of robotic surgery, I spent only two nights in the hospital and I must say the recovery wasn’t that bad.”

Danny is now undergoing radiation  as a further weapon against his  original diagnosis of Hodgkin’s.

“My biggest goal? To get back to work,” he says. “Unfortunately, with my job, you can’t ease back into it. You have to be strong and healthy from the day you go back.”

Robotic-assisted Surgery is Changing the Experience of Surgery

Until very recently, surgery options were:

  • traditional surgery with a large, open incision
  • laparoscopy with small incisions, typically limited to very simple procedures

Now, thanks to the use of the da Vinci® Si HD Surgical System, surgeons at Atrium Medical Center
are able to offer a minimally invasive option for urologic, gynecologic and thoracic surgeries.

“Any time there’s new, proven technology that offers better outcomes, I get excited about it,” says Andrew Baker, RN, on the Surgery team at Atrium.

“Robotic-assisted surgery allows the surgeon to do precise work with only small incisions, even for complex surgical procedures. It’s amazing.”

Seated near the patient at the system console in the operating room, the surgeon views the actual surgical site with a total immersion video system and does the surgery in real time using highly accurate, miniaturized instruments. Because of the precision of the instruments, only tiny incisions have to be made, eliminating the need to cut through major muscles.

“I see a magnified, high-resolution 3-D image of the actual surgical site as I work,” says John M. Miller, MD, who performs robotic-assisted thoracic surgery at Atrium. “No matter how large an incision would be, I could never have the view that the robot gives me. It allows for the most precise work possible.”

Dr. Miller emphasizes that this is not an independent robot at work.

“The system cannot be programmed and it cannot make decisions on its own,” he says. “The robotic system requires that every surgical maneuver be performed with direct input from the surgeon.”

Learn more about robotic-assisted surgery at Atrium.