Patty Gilbreath of Davenport watched in amazement Tuesday morning as Dr. Brian Witt demonstrated robotic technology at Genesis Medical Center, East Campus.

It was the same technology used to diagnose and operate on the 59-year-old woman’s lung cancer, only this time, she was awake to see it.

Patty Gilbreath talked about her successful robotic lung-cancer diagnosis and surgery at Genesis Medical Center, Davenport, on Dec. 20, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

A smoker for 45 years, Gilbreath said she was devastated when she was diagnosed with stage 1 cancer in October. She had been going for regular CT scans because she was at risk for lung cancer.

“I was at stage 1, and they were both on the same lobe and were able to remove them,” Gilbreath said after a Tuesday press conference touting the new technology. Her surgery Nov. 9 gave her a very happy Thanksgiving.

“I feel like I got a second chance at life,” she said. She continues to recover from the surgery and feels “blessed” to be cancer-free.

“I’m thankful for the Ion lung biopsy and overwhelmed and grateful to be cancer-free,” said Gilbreath, who works at Vision 4 Less and quit smoking right after getting diagnosed. “The minute you’re told you have cancer, your life kind of stops. I feel like I have been given a second chance and have a new outlook on life. It’s amazing.” 

She recommends early detection for many health conditions. Gilbreath felt very lucky to benefit from the Ion robotic procedure.

“It was amazing. I thought, I just hope we don’t have a power outage,” she said. She continues to have CT scans every six months, to make sure everything’s good.

Conquering the top cancer killer

Lung cancer remains the leading cause of cancer death, largely because it often goes undiagnosed until the disease has advanced and is more difficult to cure.

Genesis Medical Center, Davenport, is the first in the QC region to offer Ion by Intuitive, a robotic-assisted platform for minimally invasive lung biopsies that enables doctors to more easily obtain tissue samples for early detection and staging of lung cancer.

Patty Gilbreath with her pulmonologist, Dr. Brian Witt, at Genesis East Campus, Dec. 20, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Diagnosing lung cancer often requires a biopsy of lung nodules, most of which are located in the outer third of the lung, according to Genesis. This area of the lung is full of tight spaces and narrow airways that are difficult to reach with a traditional bronchoscope. Ion navigational bronchoscopy is able to access these hard-to-reach areas of the lung.

“Ion navigational bronchoscopy is a significant advancement in the early detection of lung cancer for our patients,” said pulmonologist Brian Witt, MD, of Genesis Pulmonary Associates, who is Gilbreath’s doctor. “It gives pulmonologists a minimally invasive way to access areas of the lung that previously were nearly impossible to reach and to biopsy lung nodules for an immediate diagnosis.

Genesis pulmonologist Brian Witt, MD, performs a lung biopsy on a patient with the Ion by Intuitive robotic-assisted platform for minimally invasive lung biopsies.

“Detecting lung cancer at an earlier stage can improve outcomes for patients and give them a better chance of survival,” he said.

Lung cancer is the top killer of all cancers, accounting for one of every four cancer deaths, said Kurt Andersen, MD, Genesis Health System’s chief medical officer. One in 16 U.S. citizens will be diagnosed with lung cancer in their lifetime, he said, noting the five-year survival rate is just 23 percent.

Improving survival rates

If they find cancer at its earliest stage, those survival rates are greatly increased, Andersen said. “It’s about being able to diagnose the cancer early and offer an effective treatment, a longer life for our patients and their families.”

Dr. Kurt Andersen is chief medical officer for Genesis Health System (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I want to reassure people, the robots don’t actually do all the work,” he said. “The doctors are there and the robots are there to assist them.”

“What that means for the physician, they can get better visualization of what they’re working on. They can have increased dexterity,” Andersen said. “For our patients, what that means is a faster recovery, less pain, potential for earlier diagnosis and detection of their cancer.”

Genesis has 22 specialists who perform robotic cases in Davenport, including urology, general surgery, orthopedics, gynecology, and now pulmonology.

“These specialists provide high-level care using the robotics technology,” Andersen said. “The early diagnosis of lung cancer is critical. If we can diagnose the cancer early, your treatment options include surgical resection and cure from the cancer from surgery.”

Lung cancer is usually detected later stages, because presentation with symptoms usually is later, where patients are not eligible for surgery.

Brian Witt, MD, of Genesis Pulmonary Associates (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“So the key to fighting this cancer is catching cancer early,” Witt said. “Once we catch these areas, we need to be able to act on them, and that’s been our problem, until having this new technology. A lot of the areas are either too deep in the lung, where you can’t access the area with a needle on the outside, through the chest wall.”

They needed a new technology, for diagnosis of cancer, including finding benign growths, Witt said, noting ruling out cancer is as important as diagnosing cancer.

The Ion robotic arm uses a very thin catheter, to explore the lung, with real-time imaging and a 3-D model of the lung.

“It tells us where to go; there’s a lot of branches of the lung,” Witt said. “We use a small needle to get a biopsy once we get to the location. The incidences of complications are less than 5%, but in a lot of cases, it’s 1 to 3%.

How Ion works

Dr. Witt and Anand Kommuri, MD, also of Genesis Pulmonary Associates, have been using the Ion since August.

Prior to Ion, a common way to identify and biopsy suspicious lung nodules was to use live CT scan imaging and a needle, entering the chest wall and lung from the outside of the body. This biopsy method carries a significant risk of collapsing the lung, which can require hospitalization for some patients. Ion’s minimally invasive lung biopsy is safer for patients, with a faster recovery.

Dr. Witt demonstrating the Ion robotic technology at Genesis, Dec. 20, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Before the biopsy, Ion software uses a CT scan of the lungs to generate 3D airway images to map a pathway to the nodule. With the Ion’s vision probe, Witt and Kommuri have real-time vision of the airway. They insert the ultra-thin Ion catheter, traveling to the patient’s lung via the mouth and throat and through an endotracheal tube. This has fewer complications than using a needle inserted outside the body.

“Ion navigational bronchoscopy substantially decreases the risk of collapsing the lung,” Kommuri said. “The Ion catheter can navigate in tight spaces, bending 180 degrees in all directions, to reach any lung nodule and obtain a tissue sample for a more precise biopsy.”

A growing program

Ion is the latest addition to the Genesis “family” of robotic-assisted technology that offers patients minimally invasive procedures in urology, general surgery, gynecology, orthopedics and now pulmonology for faster recovery and less pain.

Genesis pulmonologist Brian Witt, MD, performs a lung biopsy on a patient using the Ion robot at Genesis Medical Center, Davenport, East Rusholme Street.

“We’re excited to bring Ion to Genesis as the latest robotic-assisted technology to get patients back to their lives sooner,” said Jordan Voigt, president of Genesis Medical Center in Davenport. “We offer the region’s most advanced and comprehensive program of robotic-assisted minimally invasive procedures, with 22 active providers and more than 5,400 procedures performed.

“Some examples of the many types of procedures we do include prostate and gallbladder removal, knee replacement, hernia repair and hysterectomy.”

Genesis Medical Center began its robotic-assisted surgery program in 2009 with the acquisition of its first da Vinci robot. Now with four da Vinci robots for surgery, one Ion for pulmonology, and one Rosa Knee for total knee replacement, Genesis Medical Center, Davenport expects to achieve the highest-ever volume this month, Voigt said. Genesis Medical Center, Silvis, also has a Rosa.

Genesis Medical Center president Jordan Voigt spoke at the Tuesday press conference, Dec. 20, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

For Gilbreath, the lung cancer patient, in October Witt found a growth on her lung, and recommended using Ion technology, since the area was inaccessible with a traditional bronchoscope.

“I was able to guide the catheter to the area, get a biopsy,” Witt said, noting it was cancerous. Her surgery was successful and she is cancer-free. “It’s especially exciting during this Christmas season, she was able to report to her family just last week that there’s no signs of cancer.”

“That just speaks to the technology and our goal with this program – catching cancer early,” Witt said.

Genesis pulmonologist Brian Witt, MD, performs a lung biopsy on a patient with the Ion by Intuitive robotic-assisted platform for minimally invasive lung biopsies.

The previous closest pulmonary robotics at hospitals have been in Des Moines, Chicago and Madison, he noted.

If you catch cancer earlier, that cuts down on treatment costs, Witt said.

Patients at risk

Genesis offers a Lung Cancer Screening Program for at-risk patients to detect lung cancer early, before symptoms begin, and improve outcomes. Call (563) 421-LUNG to learn more.