When Kelley Call was a child, her mother underwent surgery to have her gallbladder removed. The long, post-operative recovery process — and the nearly 4-inch surgical scar — made a lasting impression on the young girl.
“It was gruesome,” said Call, now 52. I’m sure she was up off her feet for six weeks. That was the norm, I think. She was a very positive and uplifting person, but this knocked her down a little bit.”
Call was in her 40s and a mother herself when she began feeling the symptoms — nausea, pain in the upper belly after meals — as her gall bladder was starting to fail.
Call endured until late 2012, when her doctor finally persuaded her to undergo a gallbladder scan. The results were grim: The small organ, which stores bile from the liver and helps digest fat, wasn’t functioning at all.
After seeing what her mother had gone through, though, Call wasn’t eager for surgery.
“That’s crazy to be scarred that severely as she was for a gallbladder,” said Call, who also felt she didn’t have time to put her life — and job as a staff assistant at The Bijou School — on hold during the prolonged recovery. “I’m a busy person. My job is very important to me, and I didn’t want to miss a lot of time.”
Medical technology has advanced greatly since the 1960s, and laparoscopic surgery is now the norm. Even with laparoscopic surgery, though, the recommended post-op down-time is 7-10 days. There can be up to four incision points, which later can pose a danger of site infections. Statistics show that as many as 10 percent of all laparoscopic gallbladder surgeries must be switched to open surgeries because of complications that arise during the procedure, requiring a larger incision.
Call’s doctor, Tiffany Willard, proposed another option: Single-incision robotic surgery, with Memorial Hospital’s new $2.2 million da Vinci Si surgical robot, purchased as part of a $90 million investment by University of Colorado Health into capital projects at the hospital.
“With traditional laparoscopic surgery, four hands are needed to control the arms,” said Willard, a general surgeon on staff at Memorial Hospital. “With robotic single-site surgery, you have three arms going in through one 2-centimeter incision, with one doctor in control. It’s just an amazing technology.”
The high-tech da Vinci device, which the hospital acquired in July 2012, was promptly put to use for multiple-incision, robotic laparoscopic procedures. Willard and her husband, Dr. Khurram Khan, though, became the only doctors in the Colorado Springs area qualified to use it for single-site robotic gallbladder removal after they received specialized training in late 2012. Between them, they’ve performed more than 100 such surgeries to date.
“You know the procedure, it’s just getting comfortable with the new machine,” said Khan, before adding: “Plus, I play a lot of Xbox.”
With single-site robotic surgery on da Vinci, the doctor has a better view of the inside of the body than with open surgery and more precise control of the surgical instruments, which lowers the risk of damage to surrounding organs, Willard said. Because of the single incision within the crater of the navel, less blood is lost, there’s minimal scarring and faster recovery time. Under ideal conditions, single-site robotic gallbladder surgery can be completed in well less than a half-hour.
“We’ve only been doing this (robotic) surgery for three or four months and people are already coming to our offices asking for it,” Willard said.
With its “arms” tucked up at parade rest, the device resembles a giant, robot spider that’s died of old age.
For surgery, da Vinci is positioned over a patient and two flexible instrument-tipped “arms” and a light-tipped camera, or endoscope, are inserted through an incision in the navel. High-definition, 3-D images from the endoscope are visible in the interior screen of a vending machine-size console, at which the doctor sits, using fingers, arms and feet to control the instrument arms while viewing the live feed from inside the body.
After surgery, the detached gallbladder is removed through the incision at the navel.
“As this becomes more popular there will be more surgeons getting on board,” Willard said. “Ten years from now, I bet most surgeons will be doing robotic surgery.”
After undergoing surgery Wednesday afternoon, Call was home before 6 p.m. Aside from some lingering nausea and tenderness in her upper torso where her gallbladder had been, she felt good enough to be up and moderately active by the following morning.
“I’m not doubled over and I’ve been moving around today, feeding animals and stuff like that. I bet I’m feeling 100 percent better by tomorrow,” she said.
Call expected to return to work Tuesday.
And what does she think about having been operated on by a robot — or, really, by a doctor operating a robot operating on her?
“My father was terrified of calculators. If he could be alive today and see this, he would be pretty amazed,” she said.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364