Robot allows McLaren doctor new way to perform cancer removal procedure

Matt Dixon |  The Flint Journal                                    Surgical oncologist Douglas Iddings poses for a portrait with the daVinci Si Robotic Surgical System at McLaren Regional Medical Center. Iddings has used this system to perform robotic whipple procedures, a complicated cancer removal surgery that reconnects parts of the stomach.

Kris Turner | The Flint Journal

FLINT, Michigan — When it comes to surgical incisions, size matters to Orie Lewis.

The 69-year-old was shocked to learn he had pancreatic cancer when he was diagnosed during a November emergency room visit. The cancer caused him to lose his appetite and shed almost 70 pounds.

“I was in bad shape,” the Montrose resident said.

Lewis, who had an aortic valve replacement in 2001, was no stranger to complicated surgery and figured he was in for another 2-foot-long incision and a brutal recovery.

“You’re not up walking around after that,” he said, adding that it felt like his chest was coming apart.

Instead, Lewis’ cancer was removed and his digestive system was reconstructed through a series of three-inch incisions along his sides.

His surgeon, Dr. Douglas Iddings at McLaren Regional Medical Center, performs a new robotic, minimally invasive procedure to remove pancreatic cancer. It is one of a handful of such surgeries being performed in the country and Lewis’ surgery was the first of its kind performed at McLaren.

The surgery involves removing parts of the stomach and pancreas and the entire gallbladder, among other organs, and reconstructing the digestive system.

The robotic surgery typically ensures less pain and a shortened recovery, Iddings said. It’s also ideal for patients like Lewis who have pre-existing medical problems, such as heart and lung conditions.

“There are a lot of benefits to minimally invasive surgery,” said Iddings, who added that it also minimizes blood loss.

The surgery performed on Lewis — called a whipple — typically calls for a doctor to open a person’s chest and remove cancer with scalpels and surgical tools.

Robotic arms make it possible to do all the work through the small cuts in the abdomen. The robot is like an extension of a doctor’s arms and hands, Iddings said.

It allows precise accuracy when maneuvering through a patient’s body — the movement of a finger or hand can send the robot to areas that fingers and hands might not reach.

Robotic procedures for general surgery are the wave of the future, said Cheryl Ellegood, vice president of business development and clinical services at McLaren.

“Our patients are looking for minimally invasive procedures because we all live busy lives,” she said. “With a robotic procedure, weeks are taken off of the recovery period.”

The hospital purchased its first surgical robot five years ago and its second a year ago. At a price tag of $1.8 million each, the equipment doesn’t come cheap.

Doctors are encouraged to learn new techniques using the robots, which can do everything from hysterectomies to prostate cancer removal, Ellegood said. It shortens and simplifies surgeries just like it did for Lewis.

“It’s the perfect application to use for people who have several conditions,” she said.

Although he was in the hospital for about a month after his November surgery, Lewis said his recovery was easier than after his heart surgery.

“The good thing is when I got out of intensive care, I started feeling way better,” he said.

Still, there can be severe complications if a whipple is performed incorrectly. Digestive fluids can eat through a person’s stomach. That can occur in regular and robotic cases.

In Lewis’ case, Iddings said the minimal approach gave his patient a better chance at life. With a few months of chemotherapy left, Lewis is looking forward to hitting the golf course and gardening once spring hits.

“I feel really lucky I met the doctor,” he said. “It couldn’t have gone any better.”

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