Betty Pilkington.jpg


Pictured: Betty (third from left) with daughter Adele, husband Leonard and son Barry

It may have once only been the dreams of science fiction but robotic surgery is now a lifesaving reality and Lancashire’s first surgical robot is leading the way in the North West by performing head and neck surgery robotically.

Betty Pilkington, 76, who lives in Oswaldwistle, is one of only a handful of patients to have had the revolutionary Da Vinci robot perform head and neck surgery on her at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust.

The robotic surgery not only meant that Betty avoided major and invasive surgery which would have meant splitting her jaw and lip, she made such an amazing recovery, she was able to go on a hotel break to celebrate her birthday only days later.

Betty, who has been married to Leonard for 47 years and has two children and two grandchildren, said she has always had a rusty sounding voice and suffered from sore throats from time to time, but wasn’t unduly concerned.

However, about six months ago, she kept getting a sensation that something was stuck in her throat.

Betty explained: “I kept getting this feeling that something was stuck in my throat. I put my finger in and I could actually feel a lump.

“I mentioned it to my dentist and doctor and my dentist could actually see something with his mirror.”

Betty went into hospital for an unrelated surgical procedure and medics noticed that after they gave her sedation, it caused her to snore and her oxygen levels dropped.

Betty was referred to the oral and maxillofacial unit at Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital and it was confirmed she had a lump in her throat that needed removing.

She was then introduced to Naseem Ghazali, a consultant in oral and maxillofacial and head and neck oncology and reconstruction surgeon at East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust who is pioneering the use of the robot in head and neck surgery at the trust.

The hospital trust installed the £1.3m Da Vinci robot in the theatres at Royal Blackburn Teaching Hospital in June 2015.

Although the robot has been mainly used for removing the prostate gland in prostate cancer cases, the trust is continually expanding the number of procedures carried out using the robot.

Miss Ghazali joined East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust in July last year and before coming to the trust, she did her fellowship in America and was at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

While she was out there, she had training in and experience of using the robot in head and neck patients.

Miss Ghazali said: “East Lancashire Hospitals had aspirations to further develop their use of the robot and were keen to take me on so they could diversify the use of the robot and use it for as many specialities as possible.

“Hearing the trust had a robot was one of the main reasons I wanted to come here as it sounded an exciting opportunity.

“If you look at the use of robotic surgery worldwide, it is predominantly used for urology. However, it is extremely useful in head and neck cases.

“One of the advantages in doing these cases robotically is that the robot allows us to carry out minimal access surgery in the mouth, the back of the throat and in the head and neck area.

“Before the robot, in order to access these areas, you would have needed to do radical surgery on the face and split the lip and split the jaw.

“With the robot, you don’t need to do this. Patients have a better experience of surgery, they will have a quicker recovery, their speech will be better and their swallowing functions will be better. Their stay in hospital will also be shorter.”

Miss Ghazali has now done around five head and neck cases using the robot and Betty is one of her patients.

Betty and her daughter Adele went to see Miss Ghazali and after she explained how the procedure would work if carried out robotically, she felt it was a much better option.

Betty added: “Having the surgery done using the normal method sounded horrendous as it would have meant splitting my jaw and I would have been months recovering.

“This sounded a much better way and I trusted Miss Ghazali as she had done these procedures before in America and seemed very knowledgeable and she filled me with confidence.

“I knew this operation definitely needed doing to remove the lump. I had heard about robotic surgery and seen things done by robots on TV so it was not completely alien to me.

“My husband had a triple heart bypass so I knew it would not be as frightening as that and that I just needed to have this operation done.”

Betty had the surgery performed on her with Royal Blackburn’s Da Vinci robot by Miss Ghazali and the procedure only took about 30 minutes. If she had undergone the conventional operation, it would have been day-long major surgery.

Betty said: “All the staff in the hospital from the nurses and doctors to the staff who took me to theatre to the lady who brought round the tea were all brilliant.

“Miss Ghazali was there with me all the way and was wonderful. All the team were super and kept me informed at every stage and answered all my questions.

“I did not feel frightened at any point because they put me at ease.

“I did incredibly well with my recovery and was only in hospital for four days.

“We had booked a hotel break for my birthday a few days after the operation and I managed to go and eat and drink as normal.

“The recovery was amazing.”

Betty was told the lump had been removed successfully and although it was the size of a plum, tests showed it was benign.

However, the lump had been causing problems with her breathing and she had not been able to sleep lying down because of it.

Betty’s daughter Adele Joinson, 44, who lives in Clayton-le-Moors, says having the robotic surgery made a huge difference to her mother.

She said: “The whole operation is a lot less invasive and it meant a quicker recovery time and less time under anaesthetic which is very important for my mum as she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“The robotic surgery was a little scary at first as it was something new. But Miss Ghazali had so much confidence in the procedure and she inspired us.

"The alternative would have been splitting the jaw and doing major surgery so this seemed a much better choice.

“My mum cares for my dad Len who is 83 and has heart problems and joint problems.

“Her worry was leaving him while she was in hospital and she would have been very anxious if she had needed to be in hospital for longer.

“The robotic surgery was a success for my mum as she was back to full health very quickly afterwards.

“She was able to get back to caring for him and living a normal life very quickly.

“Miss Ghazali and her team were all excellent and kept us fully informed and were very caring.”

Betty said: “Miss Ghazali is brilliant. She inspired confidence and is very thorough and kind and made me feel comfortable and safe.

“All the team were fantastic and were very caring, not only towards me but also to my family.

“I would definitely recommend robotic surgery to anyone else who is suitable for this type of surgery.

“It made a huge difference to me having this surgery. The operation itself was a lot better and so was my recovery.”

Miss Ghazali said: “Betty’s benign lump was perfect for the robot to undertake the procedure.

“She wanted to be out of hospital in time to go on her trip and I was confident the robotic surgery could deliver that - and she made it.

“The robotic approach to remove Betty’s uncommon benign tumour has only been reported in a handful of cases internationally at the present time.

“When I saw her clinic later, we discovered the lump had been completely removed.

“There is only one other case of this kind in America where this type of lump has been removed by a robot.

"There is nobody else in Lancashire or the North West who is doing head and neck surgery robotically at the moment.”