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How robotic surgery turned around life of a busy, but tired, mom

Sandra Ray was suffering from anemia brought on by fibroids. Now her family can't keep up with her.

"C'mon, mom, keep up. Getting old?" A teenager's humor can sting, especially to a mother of two in her 40s who found gentle hikes exhausting. "Why are you always so tired? What's wrong?" A husband's concern can cause feelings of depression and defensiveness. This was Sandra Ray's world just a few years ago, before robotic surgery changed her life.

Since her mid-30s, Sandra's doctors had been keeping a watchful eye on fibroids in her uterus. Over the next several years these benign (noncancerous) tumors became so large and numerous that they caused heavy and unpredictable menstrual cycles, constant fatigue and severe anemia.

Then, in the fall of 2008, Sandra had a life-altering conversation with Sondra Summers, MD, associate professor, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, and medical director of Loyola's Ob/Gyn and Women's Health Services.

"Dr. Summers explained that if I wanted things to change, we had to treat the fibroids. We discussed several options, but since I wasn't planning on having more children, removing the uterus and the fibroids would be best," Sandra said. "Dr. Summers said a partial hysterectomy with robotic surgery would mean a faster recovery and return to work. My husband, Lee, did some research, and we all agreed on the robotic surgery."

"Sandra is a typically busy mom, and she didn't want to take two months off from life to recover from traditional surgery," Dr. Summers said. "I'm an advocate of women being educated so they can make decisions about their own health care. Robotic surgery is a wonderful and proven way for treating patients for whom it is appropriate. It's another option for women like Sandra. They make the choice that's best for them."

Robotic technology provides surgeons with enhanced visualization, and the robot's arms can turn and grasp with more agility and precision than the human hand. Sandra's surgical team inserted a tiny camera through a small incision so that Dr. Summers could see inside Sandra's body on a 3-D screen. "I was controlling the robot's movements from a computer console a few feet from Sandra."

Loyola specialists use robotic technology for heart, vascular and neurological care, lung surgery, otolaryngology, urology and some cancer surgeries. Loyola is one of the first medical centers in the Chicago area to use robots for women's pelvic surgery procedures for benign and cancerous tumors.

"About 90 percent of endometrial and cervical cancers can be treated robotically," said Ronald Potkul, MD, FACS, FACOG, professor, Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, gynecologic oncology, division and program director, gynecological oncology. "With the magnified visualization, we can now see small blood vessels and avoid blood loss. The final results in these and other cancers are the same as open surgeries, but patient comfort is improved significantly."

Loyola surgeons and are among the most experienced and proficient in this field in the Midwest. They are sharing their expertise by developing curriculum to teach robotics skills to other physicians.

As for Sandra, she stayed in the hospital only two days and was home recovering for just a few weeks. The following spring she had the energy to join her daughter on college campus visits. Sandra enjoys cooking for her family and took special joy in a vacation hiking experience. "I was leaving Lee in the dust. No one was waiting for me."

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