David’s Story

Cutting-Edge Surgery Close to Home

Miami Valley Hospital is one of only three hospitals in Ohio doing esophagogastrectomies robotically. David credits the less-invasive, robotic surgery to his remarkable recovery.

David Steele, 56, is an engineer. Despite being retired, this father of five still thinks like an engineer. So, when he learned he needed major cancer surgery, his engineering mind went to work weighing options, doing research and calculating odds.

David’s journey began when he was having difficulty swallowing occasionally—in early 2012. He was out to dinner with his wife, Nancy, in February when the swallowing annoyance became something more; it was a real problem. “I was chewing chicken and absolutely couldn’t swallow it at all.” His family doctor ordered an endoscopy in which David learned he had a tumor in the lower part of his esophagus where it meets the stomach.

Gregory Rasp, MD

David’s primary care physician referred him to oncologist Gregory Rasp, MD, who mapped out how they would tackle the tumor. The first step was a combination of 28 radiation treatments and chemotherapy. A while later, further tests indicated that the radiation/chemotherapy combination was shrinking the Stage 2 tumor. David said the chemotherapy caused significant fatigue, but all-in-all he felt pretty good.

Minia Hellan, MD

Dr. Rasp referred David to Minia Hellan, MD, a surgical oncologist, who said that treatment had shrunk David’s tumor enough to be removed surgically. She told him he was a good candidate for the less-invasive robotic surgery. She also said she would be teaming up with thoracic surgeon, Jose Rodriguez, MD. Being an engineer, David did a lot of research and reading about robotic surgery, and was pleasantly surprised to learn Miami Valley Hospital is one of only three hospitals in Ohio doing esophagogastrectomies robotically. 

Jose Rodriguez, MD

“Essentially, Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Hellan acted as a team during the surgery. She removed the tumor, and Dr. Rodriguez converted about a third of my stomach to replace the diseased portion of esophagus,” said David.  Dr. Rodriguez said four very small incisions were made in his stomach through which the cancerous portion was removed, and the stomach was detached from the esophagus. “Then there’s a gap between the esophagus and the stomach,” Dr. Rodriguez said. “I then made four incisions in his chest area through which I pulled up the stomach to reattach to the esophagus.”

David’s surgery was Nov. 2, 2012. Although he doesn’t remember much the first three days after the procedure, he knows he was allowed no food or drink. “I had a feeding tube and a chest tube but I really had very little pain,” he recalls. “I don’t believe my pain level ever went beyond 4 (on a scale of 1 to 10),” he said.

The surgery involved eight small incisions through which the physicians worked. David credits the less-invasive, robotic surgery to his remarkable recovery. “I had a normal Thanksgiving dinner three weeks after surgery.” Because part of his stomach was stapled off to build a new esophagus, David lost 65 pounds. “I eat whatever I want, but I can’t eat as much. I needed to lose weight anyway.”

Dr. Rodriguez said the less-invasive surgery makes the whole experience much easier on the patient. “They have been on radiation and chemotherapy, and are weak. By doing this less-invasive surgery, they recover faster, and they get back to a normal life quicker.” He also said pain can be much less with the robotic surgery.

David underwent additional chemotherapy for a few more months, and his prognosis is excellent. Dr. Rodriguez explains that about five days following surgery, the patient drinks a liquid contrast, and an X-ray shows how the new connection is healing. “My swallow test showed no leaks,” David said.

David credits his physicians’ confidence and enthusiasm about this procedure for his own confidence. “No way would I have believed a procedure like this could have been done in Dayton, Ohio. Miami Valley Hospital—in my estimation—is the preferred place to be.”

Three months after his surgery, David was 90 percent back to normal. He credits his faith, the support of his family and his church and his confidence in his medical team to his excellent recovery. Unfortunately, esophageal cancer is not usually detected until it is quite advanced. David discovered his cancer fairly early. “If you are diagnosed with cancer, it’s not the end of the world, and the care you need is right here in Dayton.” Dr. Rodriguez said some of the early symptoms of esophageal cancer include consistent, serious heartburn and weight loss. 

This father of five invited Dr. Rodriguez to speak at Sulphur Grove United Methodist Church. The church has begun a ministry called Cancer Companions, which David said is more important to him now than ever. Dr. Rodriguez accepted the invitation to speak to the group. “It was wonderful,” Rodriguez said. “I believe we were able to help other people.”

Meanwhile, David believes he was put through this ordeal for a reason. “I want people to know a cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence.”

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