Benita Palenske grew up with a daunting family medical history. Her mother, aunt and grandmother all suffered from severe, sometimes debilitating, gynecologic conditions.
For years Benita showed no ill symptoms, so she thought she had dodged a hereditary bullet. But in February 2010 at age 38, her genetics caught up with her. The Rogers Park native was diagnosed with adenomyosis, a condition where the lining of the uterine walls grows into the muscular walls of the uterus, causing severe pain and very heavy periods.
After exploring several treatment options with her doctors at Swedish Covenant Hospital, Benita accepted that a hysterectomy was the right choice for her. And yet, just the thought of a conventional surgery awakened painful memories of her family members’ slow recoveries and lingering scars. She also feared how the surgery and recovery time would affect her career as a fast-paced Chicago realtor.
She was torn between the procedure she needed to heal, and a fear of an open surgery. Like nearly 50 percent of women who require a hysterectomy, Benita didn’t know that procedures involving smaller incisions and less traumatic techniques were available to her.
Fortunately, her surgeon informed her about, and later performed, a new surgical approach to hysterectomy which alleviated her fears, allowed her to get the treatment she needed without the pain and scarring that her predecessors experienced, and had her back on her feet in just two days.
This minimally invasive approach is known as da Vinci robotic surgery.
During robotic surgeries—which can be used for a variety of gynecologic, urologic and general surgeries— the surgeon uses controls to manipulate small surgical instruments (robotic “arms”) positioned inside the patient's body.
Because the movements of the robot’s arms are so precise, hysterectomy patients often experience much less blood loss and swelling after surgery, which means they usually will only be in the hospital for a day or so after surgery, and back on their feet within a week or two. This is stark contrast to a traditional hysterectomy with a 6 to 12-inch incision, which typically requires patients to be in the hospital four to five days and off their feet for six weeks.
“I had my robotic surgery on Thursday. I was home on Friday morning, at church and cooking dinner for my husband by Sunday and back to work on Monday. It was great,” Benita said.
She said the pain wasn’t sharp, as she was expecting, but rather like she “had done too many sit-ups,” and a month after surgery, she could barely see the four dime-sized scars on her abdomen.
“My mom and aunt have major scars from their surgeries, and when they saw my scars after my surgery they couldn’t believe we had had the same surgery,” she said.
Despite her enthusiasm for the surgery and her excellent results, she admits that robotic hysterectomy is not for every woman, and her surgeon, Dr. Joseph Maurice agrees.
“This technology is incredible, but all women need to have a sit-down conversation with their doctor, get educated about their treatment options and make an informed decision based on your own personal priorities,” said Dr. Maurice, who is director of gynecologic robotic surgery at Swedish Covenant Hospital. “If robotic surgery is right for them, it can reduce surgical risks, both during and after surgery, and speed up recovery time. This is essential since many people need to quickly get back to work and their lives after surgery.”
And that is exactly how it worked out for Benita. Today she is happy, healthy and she does not worry about the heavy, painful periods that have plagued her and her family members in the past.
“For me individually, robotic surgery was the answer," she said. "I finally feel normal, and that feels great.”
Photo by Steve Matteo Photography.