ORANGE PARK, Fla. -- A cutting edge medical procedure is now available in Clay County. That one hospital is touting as "the future of heart surgery."
Dr. Nathan Bates, the director of cardiothoracic and vascular surgery at Orange Park Medical Center, said, "Why it's such a big deal is because it's a minimally invasive way to fix the mitral valve."
The mitral valve, located on the left side of the human heart, helps to transfer blood to other regions of the vital organ. However, Bates told First Coast News that surgery is required when disease or advanced age cause the valve to stop working properly.
"You need to fix that valve so you don't go into heart failure or have complications," he explained.
Traditionally, repairing the mitral valve requires extensive surgery. Bates said the sternum must be broken in order to reach the heart, which leads to scarring and an extensive recovery period.
But with a new surgical robot the hospital is now using, Bates said the recovery time is much shorter because smaller incisions are made through the rib cage.
"It's still open heart surgery, but it's all through the right chest with small ports," he said.
Bates mans the robot using his feet and fingers while sitting across from the operating table. Every move he makes the robot makes with its four arms suspended over the patient.
Bates has a clear image of what's happening inside the heart the entire time. His surgical team also remains in the operating room at the patient's side to monitor their vitals and provide assistance.
"What I'm doing to the robot with my hands translates to inside the patient," he explained.
The major difference, Bates said, is the robotic version of mitral valve surgery leads to less scarring and a shorter recovery period.
He explained, "It's dramatic to see how much less pain they have and how much better they do overall in their hospital stay. Then, they get home three or four days quicker with no restrictions. That's a big advance."
The hospital performed the innovative procedure for the first time on April 14, which it boasts has never been done before in northeast Florida.
Walter Rountree of Green Cove Springs was the patient and admitted he was somewhat nervous about being "the guinea pig."
"It was kind of a big decision for me," he said.
But he explained his concerns went away after Dr. Bates and his staff walked him and his family through every step of how the robot was going to work.
"He went in and showed me with his nurses the overall process and the machine itself," she said.
Rountree landed in the hospital recently after suffering some health setbacks. He said doctors discovered his heart was larger than it should have been.
He said, "They found that my valves weren't closing the way they should be."
Rountree said he opted for the robotic mitral valve repair so he could get back to work as quickly as possible. Today, his four incisions are already starting to heal.
"I'm doing good. I'm still a little sore. Can't sing bass yet," he joked.
Dr. Bates hopes to have more patients like Rountree in the near future. He has used the robot on a couple of other patients since.
But he said at least 100 families are still leaving northeast Florida to have the exact same procedure.
"Florida needs it. Right now, they're going all the way to Atlanta or Cleveland," he said.
His hope is to get the word out about it now so people realize they can get heart healthy here at home. "My vision is for patients in northeast Florida to no longer have to leave Florida to get this done."
Bates added the risks of complication or death are about the same for the traditional and robotic method of the surgery. He said you should consult with your doctor or cardiologist to see which one you are the best candidate for.