A Day in the Life of Robotic Surgeon Isaac Kim
words by mary ann littell / photography by john emerson
n sports, it’s scoring a touchdown or hitting a home run out of the park. In Hollywood, it’s getting an Oscar. In journalism, it’s winning a Pulitzer Prize. In prostate cancer surgery, it’s curing patients without impairing urinary and sexual function.
Isaac Kim wins the equivalent of the Oscar, the World Series and the Pulitzer for the amazing work he does with the da Vinci robotic system. He operates with the use of a computer, special magnifying goggles and a
joystick that controls the surgical instruments, making tiny incisions and precise cuts. Kim’s stats speak for themselves: He has performed more than 700 robotic prostatectomies in his four years at The Cancer Institute of New Jersey (CINJ) at UMDNJ. Even more impressive: CINJ is one of only a few institutions reporting a greater than 90 percent continence rate and potency rate in men with normal sexual function prior to surgery.
The father of four young children, Kim came to the U.S. from South Korea in 1980 and grew up in San Francisco. “I became interested in robotic surgery when I first saw the da Vinci system in 1999,” he says. “From the start I was fascinated and captivated by this new technology. The beauty of it is that it’s so much easier on patients. They recover much more quickly and have fewer complications, less pain and less bleeding.” In October, Kim received the prestigious Circle of Hope Award from the CINJ Foundation for his clinical achievements and dedication to patients.
UMDNJ Magazine documented a day in the life of this dynamic surgeon, observing him examining patients, sharing information with families and performing a robotic prostatectomy. At the end of the day, one thing was clear: This surgeon is at the top of his game.
Kim’s day begins at CINJ’s Dean and Betty Gallo Prostate Cancer Center, where he coordinates activities with Stephanie Matlin, RN (right). Across the street at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, he speaks to patient Nelson O’Bryant, a former Marine, about his prostatectomy scheduled for later in the day (above). “Urinary incontinence is a major source of concern following prostate cancer surgery,” says Kim. He prides himself on a finely tuned surgical technique that improves bladder function for his patients, measured in part by use of urinary pads following surgery. “One-third of our patients never need a pad,” he states. “I’ve been doing these procedures for more than five years, and only five of my patients require pads.”
Back in his office, Kim shares a joke with 57-year-old Robert Gros, a realtor from Annandale. One week ago, Gros underwent removal of “perhaps the largest prostate I’ve ever seen,” states Kim. Gros was diagnosed in April following a routine physical exam. His daughter, who works at UMDNJ, had heard of Kim’s expertise and brought her father in for treatment. “He’s the man! A fantastic surgeon, and I’ve never had a doctor communicate more clearly,” says Gros. “I feel great. I’m ready to go back to work.” This patient’s prognosis is excellent, says his surgeon.
Kim works the phone before heading back to the hospital for his afternoon procedure.
“With the open surgical procedure, we depended solely on our human eyes when we operated,” says Kim. “This robot has 10x magnification —much better vision than we have. So we can be more precise. And with smaller incisions, the recovery time is about two weeks, as compared to six weeks for the open procedure.” Ninety-five percent of Kim’s patients go home after only one night in the hospital and none has required blood transfusions.
“As we’ve grown more comfortable with this technology, we’ve made innovations to the robotic procedure,” says Kim. He developed a new, enhanced procedure known as Athermal Intrafascial Robotic (AIR) prostatectomy, in which the nerve controlling the ability to have an erection is better preserved by sparing over 90 percent of the tissues surrounding the prostate. In the conventional open or robotic radical prostatectomy, only 40 to 50 percent of these tissues are spared. Patients undergoing the AIR procedure regain sexual function and bladder control more quickly.
Teaching is important to this surgeon. In addition to training residents, he’s also introduced this new technology to a younger generation. A few months ago he brought the robotic system to a Montgomery township middle school for “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” The sixth-graders learned how surgeons use the system in the operating room. “They’ve grown up with access to computers and video games,” says Kim. “I wanted them to see how this technology also saves lives.”