Advanced surgical technology helps one woman conquer kidney cancer

Helen Miller knew something was wrong. The right side of her abdomen hurt regularly. She had a few visits with her primary doctor to figure out the cause of the pain and went to the emergency room after a fall that resulted in a large amount of blood in her urine. In late 2020, Helen’s primary care physician referred her to a urologist at Adventist Health Sonora for X-rays, which showed a large tumor on her kidney. The diagnosis: kidney cancer.

Doctors said that Helen, who is 90 years old and healthy, had the best chance of beating her cancer with robotic surgery.

“They gave me the choice of regular surgery to remove the tumor or a new robotic surgery,” Helen says. “And after the urologist explained it to me, I told him there was no thinking it over. I wanted to have this surgery robotically.”

Helen, who worked as a nurse’s assistant and as an administrative assistant to physicians, is fascinated by science. Robotic surgery caught her attention for that reason, but it was the benefits that helped her decide.

Robots assisting surgeons

The da Vinci Xi robotic surgical system translates a specially trained surgeon’s hand movements precisely and with a much greater range of motion than humans can achieve. As a result, robotic surgery involves smaller incisions that are less susceptible to infection and quicker to heal compared with those from traditional surgery.

Robotic surgery has been around for decades, but the kind of technology available to Helen is new — in fact, Adventist Health Sonora is the only hospital system in the Mother Lode to offer it. And Adventist Health is uniquely positioned to provide it, having urologists on staff who are well-trained to use the system to perform complex surgeries.

The da Vinci system is not Adventist Health Sonora’s first foray into robotic medicine: In 2014, orthopedic surgeons there began using a robotic arm to perform a surgical treatment for adults with knee osteoarthritis.

(Shorter) road to recovery

While recovering from surgery, Helen says she felt very little pain, which she managed with extra-strength acetaminophen, even though stronger narcotics were an option if she needed them. She was home from the hospital within about 36 hours, two days sooner than she would have been with traditional surgery.

Helen says her life is back to normal. She walks and spends time with her children. She said she would recommend robotic surgery to anyone who might benefit from it.

“It’s less stress on your body. It’s fairly fast. It’s less invasive,” she says. “You heal faster. And if you’re not in the hospital as long, that is a good thing.”


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