Boy with rare swallowing disorder has robotic surgery at UIC

Surgeons at the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago performed robotic-assisted surgery on a 12-year-old Chicago boy with a rare swallowing disorder called achalasia. The disorder, in which the sphincter muscle between the esophagus and stomach does not properly relax, affects only about 100 children in the United States each year and is often misdiagnosed.

Nathaniel O'Donnell would often complain about pain in his chest when he ate, according his mother, Weslene O'Donnell, a Chicago police officer. His parents and pediatrician attributed the 150-pound boy's complaints to heartburn.

"When he drank, he could feel the temperature of the hot or cold liquids just sitting there in his chest," said his mother.

Nathaniel lost nearly 28 pounds in a short time, and his worried parents became determined to find out what was wrong with their son. Specialists diagnosed Nathaniel with achalasia, a disorder which occurs in only 2,000 people in the United States each year, 95 percent of them adults.

There is no cure for the disorder, but surgery provides the greatest hope for improving symptoms, which include difficulty swallowing liquid and solid food, chest pain and weight loss.

Traditionally, surgery for achalasia has been performed as an "open" procedure. Only recently have minimally invasive techniques like laparoscopy been used.

UIC surgeons were the first in the world to perform robotic myotomy for achalasia in adults and in children. They were also the first to publish the benefits of robotic myotomy over laparoscopic myotomy for this rare disorder.

During a one-hour procedure on Jan. 24, surgeons used the da Vinci Surgical System to cut the sphincter muscle, which will allow Nathaniel to eat and drink food that will empty directly into his stomach.

Nathaniel, an active boy who plays baseball, football and hockey, is expected to be discharged from the hospital tomorrow.

Experienced minimally invasive surgeons are continually pushing the envelope to use robotic-assisted surgery for more complex surgeries. Procedures that were once performed through open abdominal surgery or conventional laparoscopic surgery are now being adapted using the robot, which allows surgeons to operate more precisely.

UIC surgeons performed the first robotic-assisted surgery in Illinois in 2000. Since then, more than 500 robotic surgeries have been performed at UIC for a variety of procedures, including kidney or kidney-pancreas donation for transplantation, gall bladder removal, esophageal repair, and gastric bypass and Lap-Band for treatment of obesity.

UIC ranks among the nation's top 50 universities in federal research funding and is Chicago's largest university with 25,000 students, 12,000 faculty and staff, 15 colleges and the state's major public medical center. A hallmark of the campus is the Great Cities Commitment, through which UIC faculty, students and staff engage with community, corporate, foundation and government partners in hundreds of programs to improve the quality of life in metropolitan areas around the world.

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