NEW LENOX – Darnella Washington’s heavy menstrual periods were interfering with her job as a certified nurse assistant and she soon found out why.
During a routine pap smear, Washington's doctor diagnosed fibroids, benign uterine tumors. According to The Office on Women’s Health (www.womenshealth.gov), fibroids can cause heavy or painful menstrual periods, pelvic pain, frequent urination, low back pain, a feeling of fullness in the pelvic area, complications during pregnancy and labor, and painful intercourse.
Washington, of Crest Hill, chose to have a partial hysterectomy with the single-incision da Vinci (robot-assisted) procedure through her belly button, which left minimal scarring. This was done by Silver Cross surgeon Dr. Nahla Merhi, the first woman in the state to perform single-incisions hysterectomies.
“I was happy about the surgery. It was nice and quick," Washington said. “I didn’t have to take any pain meds, even when I was in the hospital overnight.”
Now a specialist in the field, Merhi has performed more of these surgeries than any other surgeon in Illinois, male or female. Silver Cross is now an observation site for single-site hysterectomy, said Tracy Simons, director of marketing and communications for Silver Cross Hospital in New Lenox. Gynecologists fly from all over the country to come observe while Merhi performs them, Simons added.
Joining Merhi in making Illinois history is another Silver Cross surgeon, Dr. Laura Ragauskaite, the first woman in the state to perform single-site cholecystectomies through the same robot-assisted procedure Merhi uses. Ragauskaite has done 15 cholecystectomies and 50 total robot procedures for all types of general surgery, she said.
One of those patients was Jordan Partney, 17, of Dwight. Jordan's mother, Christy Partney, said Jordan had felt pain and cramping in her gall bladder; an ultrasound diagnosed the gall bladder inflammation.
Christy was amazed that, five hours after arriving at Silver Cross for the surgery, they were on their way home. Jordan felt some initial pain, which decreased after the first few days. Within six weeks, Jordan had returned to cheerleading and some tumbling.
"She even attended prom," Christy said.
It’s a great refinement of the surgeries, the doctors agreed, and safer than traditional hysterectomies and gall bladder removals: less trauma, quicker recovery and a better cosmetic outcome.
The “robotic” part is nothing scary, either, they explained. The surgeon operates the controls of the device while viewing the inside of the patient and the surgical instruments through three-dimensional viewing with powerful magnification.
The single-incision surgery is a good option to opening up patients, Merhi said, especially for procedures such as hysterectomies, removal of ovaries and endometriosis treatment. Merhi said traditional surgeries are still necessary when treating cancer, large tumors or extensive endometriosis.
“I do single site about 80 percent of the time,” Merhi said. “I did three last Monday.”
Ragauskaite, a general surgeon whose father was a trauma surgeon in Lithuania, can use the robotic single-incision surgery on patients with gallstones and gallbladder polyps. The pioneering part of her work never occurred to Ragauskaite when she performed her first single-incision robotic surgery.
“I liked the idea of fixing a problem with my hands and getting my patients back on their feet,” she said.
Surgery is a field that is still predominately male. The Association of Women Surgeons said that women accounted for only 14 percent of general surgeons in 2007. Both women said about half their classmates were women. Ragauskaite said those numbers decreased during surgical specialization.
However, statistics didn’t scare Merhi away from a career in gynecological surgery. Instead, she said, they challenged her.
“I think we can actually do a better job at understanding our patients,” Merhi said. “I wasn’t discouraged at all. My parents encouraged me to go with my passion.”
Although at times Merhi had to prove herself, she never felt resentment at any unequal treatment or attitudes. Merhi said she does believe it’s harder for many women to juggle families and work. Her way of adapting was choosing to become a gynecological surgeon and not an obstetrician.
This helped balance her life and spend time with her family, which Merhi said makes her a better doctor and surgeon. Being a woman should not deter anyone from becoming a surgeon, she said.
Surgery also can be a physically exhausting job. It involves standing for hours at a time or leaning over a patient or instruments. Still, Ragauskaite said, it’s amazing how the body adjusts
“Once you’re in surgery, you block out everything that’s around you," Ragauskaite said. "You’re in the mode. You’re very focused.”