Boston Medical Center Surgical Robot Saves Life, Voice of New York Student

March 22, 2012

A teenager's fight with throat cancer was helped recently by a new procedure using robots that is only available in Boston.Nick Heald loves to sing. His voice is a fixture at his New York high school, in the chorus and in plays. But out of nowhere that began to change.

"He had a tragedy happen to him and he hadn't been himself all year. I think that I was passing off (his) symptoms as him being sad," said Nick's mother, Amy Gurdo.

"Teachers were thinking my voice sounded differently, so I asked my voice instructor about it and she recommended I go to an ENT," said Heald.

That's when doctors noticed something on the base of his tongue."

Three days later, after the CT scan came back, (the doctor) started calling it a mass instead of a cyst, and he said, 'We need to go in. We need to biopsy it,'" said Gurdo.

The results? Cancer of the throat. It was their worst nightmare coming true and even worse: Nick's tumor was rare.

Every available treatment was dangerous, possibly resulting in the loss of his tongue and voice box, possibly his ability to swallow or even talk.

"I wasn't prepared. No one is prepared for that," said Gurdo.

"Nick's biggest real love in life was singing and he wanted to do that. So that could not be preserved," said Dr. Scharukh Jalisi, of Boston Medical Center.

Out of options, they headed to Boston, hoping new doctors would offer hope, and they did. It came in the form of a new procedure called Transoral Robotic Surgery.

It's minimally invasive, utilizing robotic arms to remove tumors through the mouth.

"There's a shorter length of stay in the hospital, faster recovery to swallowing, less blood loss," said Jalisi. "Shorter time under anesthesia."

The plan? To shrink Nick's tumor with chemotherapy and radiation, then operate.

"I remember waking up and everything hurt, but it all progressively got better and then one day everything worked. I could eat. I could drink. I could breath normally," said Heald.

And best of all, he could still sing. Nick has been cancer-free for a year. He's one of just 30 patients at Boston Medical Center who've had the procedure.

Researchers are also exploring whether it can be used to treat sleep apnea.

Courtesy of: The Boston Channel

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