How a Robotic Arm Freed Lisa Foster’s Brain

The first time Lisa Foster felt wobbly she brushed it off.

“I just thought I was tired,” the Haubstadt, Indiana resident recalls. But after more bouts of imbalance, a stiff neck and periodic numbness in her face, hands and feet, Foster called her local provider. “One day, I looked up my symptoms on the Internet and saw Multiple Sclerosis. I thought, ‘that’s me,’” she says.

A call to a friend struggling with that disease only fortified Foster’s line of thinking. “She told me that my symptoms sounded like MS. But when I visited my doctor she was skeptical. She said, ‘You are in your sixties, it’s a bit late in life to develop that disease’.”

Her doctor ordered an MRI to get more details. “She called me the next day and told me I had a large brain tumor. She actually used the word gigantic. My mother had died of cancer and that was all I could think of. I was overwhelmed.”

The 63-year-old had always been healthy, having never had invasive surgery before, so naturally, she was petrified. Her doctor then referred her to a set of neurosurgeons in Evansville for additional insights. “They just didn’t inspire confidence,” she says. “They never explained what they would do. I was rushed in and out in 10 minutes. I left more confused than I came in.”

Thankfully, Foster’s friend, a breast surgeon at Indiana University Health, intervened. “He said, ‘You need to find a surgeon that specializes in brain stem surgeries’ and he connected me with Dr. Shah.”

March was around the corner when IU Health neurosurgeon, Mitesh Shah, MD, entered the picture--the man who would ultimately lead the charge of Foster’s care.

“When we first looked at Lisa’s imaging, it revealed a complicated and very large brain tumor— located right in the junction where the brain meets the spinal cord. This is a very awkward position, an area that can be challenging to get to and her tumor wasn’t growing in the substance of the brain but instead on the covering,” he says. “Because of its significant size we knew we had to operate soon.”   

This time, technology was on Foster’s side.

The IU Health Methodist team had recently began to utilize an instrument called the Synaptive Digital Microscope, says Dr. Shah, a digital microscope the team reserves for complicated procedures.

“With this technology, a hands-free robotic arm with a camera attached follows the physician’s tools and shows an image of the patient’s anatomy with unprecedented detail,” Dr. Shah explains. “The arm also facilitates a more ergonomically-friendly environment and often results in less surgical time without the need to manipulate cumbersome optics. The arm moves into unique positions that allow us to view greater depth and a stronger field of view. And in Lisa’s case we could work more efficiently and ergonomically than with just a traditional microscope. The tool also enabled us to successfully work in multiple planes and in the small corridors of the brain.”

The camera’s projections allowed the IU Health Methodist team to work off of a large monitor, says Dr. Shah, which provided all involved with excellent visuals. “And the pictures that we viewed on the screen with this tool allowed us to monitor precisely where we were operating based on Lisa’s MRI, which was helpful considering the very deep and high price real estate area of the brain that we had to work around when extracting her tumor.”

Lisa’s surgery on March 16th took 8 hours. Her brain tumor was ultimately benign.

Today, Lisa says, she counts herself lucky—lucky to have lived through the experience and to have been treated by Dr. Shah.

“I have 5 kids and 19 grandchildren and I love to travel. I just wasn’t ready to stop living. And I’m lucky to have encountered Dr. Shah,” Lisa says. “He and his team changed my life and for that I’ll be forever grateful.”

-- By Sarah Burns


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