Invasion of the Robot

Don’t worry, it’s a friendly robot. In fact, Mercy’s state-of-the-art robot could soon become many local surgeons’ best friend, helping them provide their patients even better care and faster recoveries.

Story by Dick Baltus, Photos by Samantha Starns


Patient Joanne Williams back at work in her yard.

Patient Joanne Williams back at work in her yard.

Joanne Williams didn’t want to be the first one. 

Don’t get her wrong, the former registered nurse was excited when she heard about the new robotic technology Mercy Medical Center had just acquired to assist surgeons with a wide range of procedures. “I thought, my gosh, look how far we’ve come,” she says. 

She just would have preferred that someone else be the first Mercy patient to undergo a procedure in which a surgeon guides the movement of mechanized arms to extract diseased organs, remove tumors and perform many other precise functions.

“I was just a little apprehensive,” Williams, who lives in Myrtle Creek.

It was a gallstone that got Williams to the point of needing surgery. Her surgeon, Dr. Brian McVay, said her gall bladder had to come out, and that she was an excellent candidate for a robot-assisted surgery, which has become the standard of care for many procedures.

“Among its many benefits, robotic technology enhances surgeons’ ability to see inside the body and provides better range of motion than the human hand,” says Dr. McVay. “It also speeds patient recovery by replacing the large surgical incision required during traditional open surgery with a few small ones.”

“It’s an amazing piece of technology,” says Roseburg urologist Dr. Patrick Davol. “It’s a game-changer.”

Davol has used the surgical robot in an array of procedures, including prostate removals and kidney extractions and reconstructions. He says it offers many advantages for both the patient and the surgeon. He’s also quick to note that the robot isn’t acting on its own, but is simply a state-of-the-art tool that helps surgeons operate with better vision, precision and control.

Dr. McVay agrees.  “It’s not an autonomous machine doing the surgery,” he says. 

“The robot is doing what the surgeon tells it to do and mimicking the hand movements we do outside the body on an interface system.”

While there are important differences, Davol compares robotic procedures to laparoscopic surgeries, in which the surgeon manipulates tools inserted into small incisions. “Lap” surgeries are far less invasive than open surgeries, which results in shorter recovery times and has, over the last several years, facilitated the shift of most surgical procedures from hospitals to outpatient settings. 

“But performing a lap surgery is like working with chopsticks,” Davol notes. “We have to use straight, rigid instruments we can’t bend. The robot’s ‘hands’ have six degrees of movement so they bend and rotate far greater than the surgeon’s hands.”

In addition, the robot provides surgeons with high-definition, three-dimensional vison, which allows them to see a degree of depth not previously available. 

Dr. Patrick Davol at work with the surgical robot.

Dr. Patrick Davol at work with the surgical robot.

“It’s so specialized,” Dr. Davol says. “We can be a lot more precise.”

In addition to its technological benefits, the robot is an ergonomic improvement for surgeons often required to stand and bend over for long periods during their procedures. “You’re sitting at a console in an ergonomic chair as opposed to standing up, so it’s a lot less tiring for the surgeon,” says Davol. “If you’re a patient whose procedure is going to last three to four hours, it is a lot better to have your surgeon comfortable.”

If Joanne Williams was apprehensive at 7 a.m. on the September morning she went in for her surgery, that feeling was long gone by the time she got home, only 10 hours later.  Instead of the side-to-side incision that would have been required with traditional open surgery, she had just two incisions, which she estimated were no more than an inch long.

“I didn’t even need sutures,” Williams says.

She says she “laid around” for about a week, but was quickly back on her feet. At 78 years young, she had things to do. 
Within a month, “I couldn’t even tell the surgery had happened,” she says. By that time, she was already back running, not the five miles she used to run, but running nonetheless. She was back on a riding mower again, too, taking care of the grass on her half-acre property. 

And then there were her garden, her canning, her 10 great grandkids and the occasional trip with her boyfriend.   

“I’ve got a good life,” she says. “I didn’t get slowed down much by this surgery, and I really appreciate that.”