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Life-Saving Technology

Posted on March 9, 2022 in Patient Stories

Robotic-assisted esophageal surgery helps doctors cure cancer and restore lives

Millions of Americans experience acid reflux every day. Most don’t know that in the worst cases it can increase the risk of esophageal cancer.

When this happens, the symptoms usually become apparent as a slow but distinctive change in one’s usual reflux symptoms, or new difficulties with eating or swallowing. William Emert, who had years of reflux, found out the hard way.

“I thought I was healthy,” Emert says. “I didn’t listen to my body.”

Cutting-edge treatment including surgery at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center took Emert from a life-threatening illness to the restored quality of life he enjoys today.

Prolonged gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can damage the lining of the esophagus, making it easier for abnormal cells to take over and possibly transform into a type of tissue called Barrett’s esophagus, which raises the risk of esophageal cancer.

Shocking Diagnosis

“I was feeling run-down at work, just feeling bad, weak and tired all the time. I kept ignoring it and ignoring it,” Emert says.

His wife encouraged him to see a doctor, and when he finally did he was shocked by the news that came from his blood work.

“The doctor said ‘We’ve got to send you to the emergency room immediately. You’ve got internal bleeding, and I think you might have cancer,’” Emert recalls. “It blows you away.”

A very large tumor had engulfed the lower third of Emert’s esophagus, draping down onto his stomach. Michael A. Antiporda, MD, a fellowship-trained foregut surgeon (specializing in procedures for the esophagus, stomach and upper small intestine) at Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, recommended robot-assisted laparoscopic surgery to remove the tumor and reconstruct Emert’s GI tract in the most minimally invasive way possible.

“This is major surgery in potentially treacherous territory involving the chest and abdomen and neck,” Dr. Antiporda says. “It’s a highly complex operation that’s not done in high volume in many places, but at Fort Sanders Regional we’re able to do complicated cancer surgeries like these with good outcomes.”

The Right Hospital

Fort Sanders Regional was the first hospital in East Tennessee with robotic-assisted surgery and has continually updated and added to its robotic program. Robotic-assisted technology allows surgeons to offer the most advanced and minimally invasive procedures for a wide array of indications.

“Mr. Emert underwent robotic transhiatal esophagectomy which I performed using multiple very small abdominal incisions and one small left-neck incision. The robot is clutch for doing an operation like this because it permits a surgeon to use tiny incisions to operate comfortably and safely in what would otherwise be a very tight and limited space,” Dr. Antiporda says. “The alternative to this type of surgery would have been to make large painful incisions in the upper abdomen or between the ribs, which take significantly longer to recover from.”  

The tumor was removed in August 2021. Although it was major surgery, Emert was able to go home in less than a week, fully realizing the advantage of faster recovery that is seen with robotic surgery. He was pronounced “cancer-free” on August 14.

“I feel great. I had forgotten what it was to be healthy,” he says. “Listen to your body, because your body knows when something’s wrong. I learned the hard way.”

Dr. Antiporda says uncontrolled GERD is the most common underlying cause of esophageal cancer and it’s important to see a doctor for ongoing reflux that causes pain or trouble swallowing. In the event that a cancer diagnosis does come as a result of gastroesophageal reflux disease, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center is ready with the knowledge, experience and tools for the best possible outcome.

“I’m just glad to be here, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the doctors that I had,” Emert says. “I don’t think I’ve met a better doctor – or person – in my whole life than Dr. Antiporda.”

To learn more about surgery at Fort Sanders Regional visit or call (865) 673-FORT (3618).