“You need a hysterectomy.” Those words can be devastating for a woman to hear. It’s major surgery, usually with a long, painful recovery. Many women also have feelings of sadness and loss after realizing they’ll no longer bear children.
Glenn resident Denise Conklin found herself facing that reality last fall. The active 32-year-old wife and mother of two young children suffered from endometriosis, a fairly common condition that causes extreme pain when uterine tissue invades the abdominal cavity.
Her symptoms were so severe that they were starting to interfere with her life. Despite two previous laparoscopies, Conklin continued to experience heavy bleeding, cramping, shooting pains, and pain during intercourse. She just wanted the pain to stop.
“My life literally revolved around my period. I would have only one ‘good’ week a month when there was no pain or cramping,” she says. “I had to plan my day around the pain, which usually meant I had to stay close to home and not be active.”
That’s when Conklin and her doctor, Brett Zimmerman, DO, an obstetrician/gynecologist with SHMG-OB/GYN, decided it was best if her uterus and cervix were removed.
A last resort
Hysterectomies are the second most common surgical procedure for women in the United States, with nearly 600,000 performed yearly. Nearly one-third of women have a hysterectomy by the time they reach age 60. The surgery is often performed as a last resort to treat endometriosis, fibroid growths, uterine bleeding, pelvic pain, pelvic organ prolapse from childbirth, and cervical cancer.
They may be “partial,” in which the uterus only is removed, or complete, removing both the uterus and cervix. A radical hysterectomy, where the uterus, lymph nodes and support structures are removed, is done when extensive cancer is diagnosed.
“About 70 percent of today’s hysterectomies are still done with open abdominal surgery leaving the patient with a large incision across the abdomen,” Dr. Zimmerman explains. “This kind of surgery requires a two- to five-day hospital stay and another six to eight weeks of recovery.”
Conklin wanted relief, but wasn’t willing to endure the long recovery from open surgery. “That wasn’t even an option for me,” she says. “I’m active. I was not going to be out on recovery that long to get back to my life.”
Kinder, gentler da Vinci surgery
Then Dr. Zimmerman suggested using Holland Hospital’s new state-of-the-art da Vinci robotic surgical system to perform Conklin’s hysterectomy. He had just received special training on using the highly advanced technology, which was already being used at Holland Hospital for prostate gland removal.
“We use little incisions as ports for access to the body and the da Vinci’s robotic arms are positioned inside the ports. This means less movement and trauma of tissue, and the work is done inside the abdominal cavity,” explains Dr. Zimmerman. “This results in less blood loss, less pain after surgery, and a quicker recovery.”
The surgeon sits at a console a few feet away from the patient, and uses hand controls and foot pedals to manipulate the robotic arms. Using 3-dimensional high definition images, the da Vinci system allows a surgeon’s hand movements to be scaled, filtered and translated into precise movements of micro-instruments during a procedure. Fingertip controls provide a greater range of movement than the human wrist, and minimize human error.
Dr. Zimmerman adds that future applications of the robotic surgical system are so promising that the military is researching the feasibility of having doctors perform remote surgeries on soldiers miles away.
At first Conklin was apprehensive. This would be Dr. Zimmerman’s first hysterectomy using the da Vinci system; she would be his first patient. But after doing her research, she was convinced of the benefits of a da Vinci hysterectomy and consented to the surgery.
“I guess I always knew that a hysterectomy was going to have to be performed to finally help with the endometriosis,” she says. “I asked a lot of questions. I also talked nurses and other patients and did a lot of research online. It made me realize that I wasn't alone. Others had the same problem, found relief and had a quicker recovery with this new technology.”
Pain-free at last
Conklin was amazed at how quickly she bounced back after surgery. She felt so good that she resumed light workouts at the gym after just two weeks. But it was too much too fast, and Conklin backed off the intensity for two more weeks to give herself time to heal. By week four, however, she was back to doing moderate workouts three times a week. She had finally regained control of her life.
“The pain is gone. I feel healthier now then I have felt in probably 11 years, before I was pregnant with my daughter,” she marvels. “I'm actually starting to train for my first sprint triathlon in June.
“I always looked at the surgery as a blessing to rid my body of an organ that was diseased and causing pain,” Conklin continues. “My uterus served its purpose so that I could be blessed with two beautiful children. I don't think I'm any less of a woman now than I was before; I just know that I am a healthier woman now.”