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Robotic surgery offers safer option for older patients
Dr. Brent Sharpe with the da Vinci Surgical System, the surgeon’s console on the left and the robotic patient cart on the right. - photo by Tom Reed

After two years of unexplained weight loss and weakness, Jerry Fordham finally feels well enough to build birdhouses in the workshop behind his house again.

The 74-year-old was diagnosed with bladder cancer last November. Shortly after his 53rd wedding anniversary, his urologist surgically removed the cancer but found that it had spread into his left ureter, the tube that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder.

To completely remove the cancer, Fordham needed a nephroureterectomy, a procedure that removes the ureter and the kidney. Typically, the procedure involves two large incisions, about 12 inches long, from the navel to the back.

Fordham was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to recover from a traditional open surgery because of his age and general health. Years of smoking had created additional complications.

But then Dr. Brent Sharpe, a new urologist at Northeast Georgia Urological Associates, suggested a different route.

Instead of having the traditional procedure, he recommended Fordham have the surgery using the da Vinci Surgical System.

On Feb. 14, Fordham was the first patient to have a new minimally invasive procedure to remove bladder cancer at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

“We were able to perform this procedure robotically with a series of small, keyhole incisions, rather than one large incision,” Sharpe said.

The day after his procedure, Fordham was sent home to recuperate. Now six weeks later, Fordham said he’s feeling much better than he has in a long time.

Where before he had only enough energy to read a book, he’s now getting up in the mornings to “straighten out” his friends who meet at the local McDonald’s restaurant for breakfast.

Fordham said he was surprised by how quickly he recovered from the operation.

“I was very happy that is could be done that way instead of having to cut me wide open,” Fordham said. “My recovery time was less and in fact I didn’t have any pain at all.”

Fordham said he only had to take two prescription pain pills after the surgery.

Because the robotic surgery requires much smaller incisions, most patients experience less post-operative pain, blood loss, and have a shorter hospital stay and quicker recovery.

The robotic system at NGMC is currently being used for bariatric, urological, gynecological and some general surgery cases. The machine works by mimicking the motions of the surgeon’s hands and fingers. The doctor sits in a “console” equipped with several controllers and screens to magnify the operation. Three surgical nurses are at the patient’s bedside to assist.

Sharpe said the robotic system can help with a great number of procedures that can benefit patients. He said any patient is a candidate for robotic surgeries, if it’s offered, but the robotic system is especially beneficial to older patients.

“It’s a lot easier on them because there is a lot less blood loss,” Sharpe said. “You don’t have a big incision to heal from so their recovery time is a lot faster and you don’t have some of the complications that you have with the bigger open surgeries. There’s less pain. They’re able to walk around earlier. They’re able to breathe and move better. They have a smaller incision so there’s less risk of infection with the robotics procedure.”

While robotic surgery has been around for several years, surgeons and doctors are continuing to fine-tune their skills and increasing the number of procedures that can be performed with the machine.

“It depends on a surgeon’s comfort level and experience,” Sharpe said. “But the robot can be used for a lot of different types of surgeries, all (of) which would benefit patients.”

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