Julia Shenkman is a healthy and accomplished 17-year-old. She has a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo, is a member of her high school’s science team, and is fourth in her senior class in academics. Julia has another distinction: She’s a former CHOC patient who underwent a surgical procedure that involved the use of the then-landmark Da Vinci robotic surgical system.
In late 2003, CHOC became the first pediatric hospital in California to begin offering robotic surgery for children. The Da Vinci robot was an improvement over minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery because it gave surgeons a better view inside the surgery site and allowed them to more precisely manipulate instruments, which translated to less pain, fewer complications and shorter recovery time for patients.
In January 2006, Julia, then 8, was whisked to the emergency department at St. Joseph Hospital for severe abdominal pain and frequent vomiting. Blood work and X-rays for appendicitis turned up negative. It wasn’t until Julia’s doctor at CHOC, Mustafa Kabeer, pediatric surgeon, ordered an ultrasound that the cause of her distress was found: a large mass in her right ovary. Using the Da Vinci system, Dr. Kabeer operated on Julia and successfully removed the tumor, which was malignant. After three months of chemotherapy, Julia recovered and remains cancer free.
Pediatric surgeons at CHOC have performed about 100 robot-assisted surgeries, says Dr. Kabeer, who before coming to CHOC helped implement the world’s first pediatric surgery robotics program at Children’s Hospital of Michigan in 2001. Recently, Dr. Kabeer started using the Da Vinci system to perform complex operations through one incision in the belly button, such as for removal of the gallbladder. The Da Vinci system at CHOC was made possible by a $1.5 million sponsorship from Costco Wholesale Corp.
“This type of technology helps us perform a wide variety of surgeries — some of them very complex,” Dr. Kabeer says. “It takes time, commitment and vision to start and maintain such a program, but this is one of the unique things about CHOC: We want to do this, and we are committed to doing it.