He helps cut her recovery time from 7 to 3 days

Dr Aneez Ahmed from Tan Tock Seng Hospital successfully operated on Madam Woo Quai Kuen using robot arms. The 68-year-old cook was discharged three days after a lump in her lung was removed. He is the first local surgeon to be fully accredited to perform such surgery in this manner. Photo: The Straits Times

It took Madam Woo Quai Kuen three days to be discharged after Dr Aneez Ahmed removed a lump in her lung in a robotic-assisted operation.

Had the 68-year-old cook gone through conventional open surgery, she would have to be hospitalised for at least a week.

Since 2012, Dr Aneez has been recognised as the first local surgeon to be fully accredited to use robot arms for thoracic surgery.

The Chennai-born Tamil surgeon, who specialises in performing surgery on organs in the chest cavity such as the lungs and oesophagus, came to Singapore in 1996 and first worked in the National University Hospital in 1997 before moving to Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH) in 2004.

Dr Aneez shared that his mother was "sick of having engineers all around her for three generations" and had encouraged him to study medicine. "With the good family support I had, I decided to become a doctor," he said.

Said the 48-year-old, who completed his Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery in Karnatak University in Dharwad: "I decided to major in cardiothoracic surgery because I felt it was a challenging field. Apart from the hard work, I have to be physically and mentally fit to keep up with the challenges, and I think it's one field where patients are always grateful to me, as they always feel that I've helped them."

On being the first local thoracic surgeon to learn robotic-assisted surgery, he said: "I was very keen on it but because I was the first surgeon from South-east Asia to learn how to do it for thoracic surgery, I didn't know how to get myself certified, where to get myself trained and there was no support system," said the chief of TTSH's thoracic surgery division.

Yet, his determination led him to find out more about the processes from senior doctors when he attended surgical meetings in Europe and the US.

"I wanted to be the first one on the bandwagon because as technology improves, I wanted to improve myself. Furthermore, I know that this (the use of robot arms) will only give better care to the patient - that's the reason I wanted to learn robotic surgery," said Dr Aneez, who spent three years overseas learning how to use the robot arms from senior doctors.

Robot-assisted thoracic surgery is a minimal-access approach that allows surgeons to perform operations remotely, using robot arms inserted through several small incisions.

Dr Aneez, who has performed more than 120 such operations in TTSH since 2012, found that it was "easy to learn how to use the robot arms as it is user-friendly".

The robot provides enhanced vision and control and is made up of several components, which includes an ergonomically-designed console, four interactive robot arms and a 3D high-definition screen.

The four robot arms, which can bend and rotate far greater than the human wrist, are introduced into the patient's chest by small incisions, while the surgeon sits at the console and controls the arms.

Most of Dr Aneez's patients are early-stage lung cancer patients who go under the knife to have tumours removed.

Unlike conventional open surgery, which requires him to make a large cut across the chest, robotic surgery involves only a few small incisions to extract the tumour, which results in smaller wounds and scars.

This allows patients to recover earlier so they can start their follow-up treatment such as radiotherapy and chemotherapy in two or three weeks compared to conventional open surgery, where they have to wait up to six weeks for the wound to heal.

Aside from lung cancer, Dr Aneez also uses the robot arms to treat patients who have myasthenia gravis, a condition that causes muscle weakness.

He explained: "Most of these patients are women between the ages of 20 and 30. Traditionally, I make a cut on the breast bone and perform open surgery to remove the thymus. This results in a large scar and is not very ideal for a woman. With the robotic arms, I make three small incisions about 8mm each and perform robotic thymectomy."

There are smaller and less visible scars and the patient gets discharged the day after the operation, while with open surgery, they have to be hospitalised for five to seven days. "With this new technology, they recover faster and get back to work faster because there is less pain from the small incisions after the operation," said Dr Aneez.

His expertise and knowledge in minimally-invasive thoracic surgery has also led to numerous invitations for him to speak at conferences and workshops. He most recently gave a talk at the Asian Robotic Thoracic and Oesophageal Symposium and Workshop in May at TTSH, which introduces and discusses the advancing field of robotic thoracic surgery.

Explained the father of two teenage children: "It is important that patients who have lung cancer come to me when they are diagnosed early. While the tumour is still small, it can be removed by robotic surgery. If the cancer is in its late stage, robotic surgery can't be done as the tumours are big and cannot be extracted by the small incisions."

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