Debra Johnson, Cancer Survivor

Robotic-assisted surgery, the ‘number-one’ patient's story

Debra Johnson, robotic-assisted surgery patientIt’s fair to say, Debra Johnson is Gary Leiserowitz’s number-one patient. That’s because she was the first case in which Leiserowitz, a professor and chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, was able to use a robotic-assisted surgical system in the operating room at UC Davis Medical Center.

The 59-year-old Stanislaus County resident was diagnosed with endometrial cancer in the early summer of 2006. Treatment called for a complete hysterectomy. Because she was physically not a good candidate for conventional surgery, she was referred to the medical center in Sacramento, where Leiserowitz could offer the latest in innovative surgical techniques.

Leiserowitz, with years of experience in minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery, suggested a robotic-assisted procedure because it could provide the precision and field of vision needed to address her disease. The fact that it would be his first surgery using the robotic system didn’t faze Johnson, whose professional life as a clinical psychologist relies on good listening and analytic skills.

“I was fine with Dr. Leiserowitz’s recommendation and I trusted him,” says Johnson, whose mother was a physician. “He explained the entire procedure in a way I could understand. He told me my surgery would take a little longer because it was his first time using the robot. But he also emphasized that he would be controlling all the equipment and there would be another surgeon right alongside me during the entire operation.”

Debra Johnson, robotic-assisted surgery patientThree years later and in fine health, Johnson still marvels at the outcome, especially because she was able to attend her daughter’s wedding the weekend after being released from the hospital.

“I was on my feet and able to go home the day after my surgery,” adds Johnson. “I was tired but literally pain-free. I kept thinking, ‘Aren’t I supposed to be hurting?’ Everybody at the wedding thought I hadn’t had surgery yet. They couldn’t believe it.”

Johnson recently returned to the UC Davis Cancer Center for a checkup. She counts herself as fortunate not to have needed any chemotherapy or other treatment since her surgery. She even laughs that it’s now difficult to determine where Leiserowitz placed the robotic arms during the operation.

“I had to really look for the five incisions he made,” Johnson says with a chuckle. “They are really hard to see now. I never had major surgery before, but this one was a piece of cake.”