My OHSU Robotics Story: Milton “Ski” Novotny

Colby and MiltonIn early 2010, Ski was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinomaon the back of his tongue. Ski became one of the first patients at OHSU to benefit from a state-of-the-art robotic surgery procedure called TORS: Trans Oral Robotic Surgery. The OHSU Knight Cancer Institute became the first hospital in the Pacific Northwest to perform this procedure using the da Vinci robot. Ski is now back running his business in Vancouver, Washington, and also enjoys time at home with his wife, Lynne, and their dog, Colby.

I had a sore throat in late 2009. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary, so I didn’t think too much about it. But then it was February, and I realized the sore throat was still there. It wasn’t getting any worse or any better, so I decided to see my doctor. He referred me to a specialist who ordered a CAT scan, and that’s when I was diagnosed with cancer.

The specialist told me, “If this was me, I would go to OHSU.” I met Dr. Peter Andersen at the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. He referred me to Dr. Neil Gross for surgery. Dr. Gross told me about a brand new surgical procedure with a robot he was using for patients with my type of cancer. He said he felt I was an excellent candidate for the Trans Oral Robotic Surgery (TORS) device. I wasn’t nervous – I just looked at it as something I needed to take care of. Being positive from the start is important. It’s how I’ve managed to run my own business for so many years, so I feel the attitude could translate well to my cancer treatment. I figured the doctors know what they’re doing; the rest is up to me.

The night after the surgery, I was really uncomfortable in the compression stockings they have many surgery patients wear. I started to take them off, and the nurse said I couldn’t do that until I could walk. “Follow me,” I told her. She walked behind me; said I was doing just fine. I walked all night long.

I woke to find a whole host of doctors at the foot of my bed led by Dr. Gross. I could speak very well for having just had surgery on the back of my tongue. Dr. Gross told me, “It was just like I was sitting in the middle of your throat. I had unique access to remove the cancer.” I heard someone say I’d be in the hospital for a week. I announced I was leaving that day. Dr. Gross just smiled. I ended up going home the next day: another benefit of the TORS surgery. Dr. Gross said it cut my hospital recovery just about in half.

I did so well with the chemotherapy that the doctors knocked off the last week of treatment. Radiation went smoothly, and I am now cancer-free. I did have some trouble swallowing, but that was expected, and it’s getting better every day. I had to have a sense of humor to get through it, because there were times that I wondered if I would ever get through it.  So I had to look on the positive side.

I am so grateful to all of my doctors, and I think Dr. Gross did a great job with that robot. He said it allowed him to avoid splitting my jaw to get to the cancer; my neck scar is much smaller, and I don’t have any on my face. I would love to be able to see how one of those machines works– it’s just fascinating. They’re improving things all the time and I think it’s one of the greatest improvements that doctors can now go in through your throat. I feel very fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time in that respect.