Meet the robot surgeons helping treat patients at Norfolk's main hospital

One of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital's robotic surgeons

One of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital's robotic surgeons - Credit: NNUH

In years gone by the notion of major surgeries being carried out by robots would be confined to the realms of science fiction.

But at the region's largest hospital, it has been very much a reality for close to a decade, with the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital home to one of the nation's leading robotics departments. 

A robot-assisted surgery being held at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

A robot-assisted surgery being held at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital - Credit: NNUH

The hospital is home to two surgical robots, each costing more than £1m, with robotic-assisted surgeries happening almost every day at the Colney site.

Largely used by the urology department, the robots have proved instrumental in helping perform operations on cancer patients and recently the robots completed their 200th general surgery.

And in the past month, the technology has been expanded to be used by the ear, nose and throat department to operate on throat and tonsil cancer patients.

A Da Vinci robot being used by the NNUH urology team

A Da Vinci robot being used by the NNUH urology team - Credit: NNUH

In December, surgeon Ramez Nassif became the first surgeon in East Anglia to perform a trans-oral robotic surgery, which saw him remove a tumour from the throat of a cancer patient - who was able to return home on the same day as the procedure.

And Mr Nassif has since gone on to perform four more such operations - each with the same level of success.

NNUH surgeon Ramez Nassif, the first to perform robotic-assisted surgery on a throat cancer patient

NNUH surgeon Ramez Nassif, the first to perform robotic-assisted surgery on a throat cancer patient - Credit: NNUH

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Mr Nassif, who has 24 years of experience as a surgeon, said: "It may sound strange but performing robot-assisted surgeries is something I always imagined I may one day do - I have been fortunate enough to always be training around advancing technology so did picture it.

"I found that using the robot was very efficient, as it means it is easier to access parts of the body that are more difficult with chunky fingers."

Mr Nassif had to complete around four months of rigorous training on simulators before he was able to perform operations on people - training that was disrupted by the Covid pandemic, which limit the level of support he could receive.

Members of the robotic surgery team at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital

Members of the robotic surgery team at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital - Credit: NNUH

The technology sees surgeons put in control of the three-armed robotic device, which includes a camera on one arm and surgical tools on the other too.

Mr Nassif added: "The awkward thing is although you are control, you sometimes don't feel as though you are in the same way as using your own hands. But the technology gives you such better access and clearer visuals. 

"It's certainly a very exciting time for us and it is a wonderful way to train your surgical brain."

Nadine Barford, robotic clinical lead at the hospital, said the technology was continuing to be developed for more uses in the hospital, with the possibility of it eventually being used for cosmetic procedures in future.

One of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital's robotic surgeons

One of Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital's robotic surgeons - Credit: NNUH

However, she said the pandemic did lead to the robots having a period on the sidelines, with its theatre being repurposed to provide intensive care while the hospital served as a Covid surge site.

She said: "I think people sometimes do a bit of a disservice to Norfolk because we are a bit out on a limb, but we are very much at the cutting edge of this technology and our robotics team has become one of the most advanced in the country.

"The challenge for us now is going to be fitting everybody in, as we do have a bit of a backlog of elective surgeries to work through, but we are very lucky to have our two robots on site"

“In November, the general robotic team completed its 200th case, which is a great achievement considering the pressures the hospital has been under with the pandemic," she added.

"We aim to keep developing the service, for example our resident proctor, general surgeon Irshad Shaikh, will be one of the first in the country to support Telepresence. This is a remote case observation platform which will allow him to offer learning opportunities to other surgeons not only throughout the UK but also Europe."

The hospital's first robot was purchased in 2014 and solely used by for urology, with there now being two on site and its services expanding.

Husband and wife success stories

Denton husband and wife Linda Le Masurier and Alan Jenkins are two of the hospital's patients to have gone through robotic-assisted surgery - both while being treated for bowel cancer.

Linda Le Masurier and Alan Jenkins, have been treated for bowel cancer by robotic-assisted surgery.

Linda Le Masurier and Alan Jenkins, have been treated for bowel cancer by robotic-assisted surgery. - Credit: Linda Le Masurier

Ms Le Masurier was operated on in April 2021, almost a year after her husband underwent a similar procedure on a different part of his intestine.

The 72-year-old said: "Because I already knew about the robotics from my husband's operation it did ease any doubts I had. Science can do amazing things and if surgery is best done with a robot, I say get on with it.

"I can remember a time where taking a photograph is a performance and now it can be done in seconds on a mobile phone - so I certainly couldn't have ever pictured being operated on by a robot.

"But my recovery was really quite swift, I had my operation on a Thursday and went home on the Sunday, so it was really quite quick."

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