Norman Regional Health System

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Monday, November 27, 2017

NORMAN, OK - One woman was declared cancer-free within months of being diagnosed with lung cancer, with the help of Norman Regional Health System’s Dr. James Neel and robotic lung surgery.

Pamela Ritter, 61, described this year as a "roller coaster."

Ritter went in to get a body scan on June 19, after receiving a free body scan as a gift from her daughter.

The result of the body scan was a mass on her lung. The same day Ritter found out there was a mass, she lost her sister-in-law to lung cancer. Her first thought was "I have lung cancer and I’m going to die."

"That’s kind of scary. She just died and you’re faced with this. It’s like, ‘you’ve got to be kidding.’ We didn’t even have time to grieve. It was really something else," she said.

Ritter was officially diagnosed with lung cancer the next week.

Ritter initially visited Andrew Goldberg, MD, a pulmonologist at Norman Regional, and he referred her to James Neel, MD, a Norman Regional cardiothoracic surgeon.

Dr. Neel is one the few experts in robotic thoracic surgery, which requires extensive, specialized training. He offered Ritter multiple surgical options.

Ritter said as Dr. Neel went over her options, she didn’t say a word because she knew if she spoke, she’d cry.

"I love Dr. Neel. That man is awesome. He explained to us in detail about three different options, but I don’t even remember what the third was because I was still in such shock that I even had cancer," Ritter said. "Finally, he rolled over to me and patted my leg and comforted me enough to be able to speak. I knew I wanted the robotic because all I heard was ‘faster recovery.’ I’ve been cut open before for other surgeries and I didn’t want to do that again."

Norman Regional began offering robotic lung surgery in January.

Robotic surgery is a minimally-invasive procedure that uses a highly-specialized surgical robot to perform many parts of the surgery. The robotic instruments are inserted through small incisions made by the surgeon. All of the involved lung tissue can be removed with this approach.

"The robot brings us another step forward into the realm of minimally-invasive surgery," Dr. Neel said. "It’s a big advantage in terms of visualization and dexterity that I’m given in the operating room. On the patient side, it’s significantly less pain, significantly faster recovery and an equivalent, if not superior, result from a surgery standpoint."

Ritter went in for her robotic lung surgery on Friday, Aug. 4. Dr. Neel was able to make only five small incisions to perform the surgery.

For robotic surgeries, the hospital stay can be as little as two to three days.

Ritter got the good news on Tuesday, Aug. 8 that Dr. Neel was releasing her from the hospital. The best news Ritter was given was that she would be going home cancer-free.

Ritter said she was already excited to find out she was getting to go home, but when she found out she was cancer-free, she just broke down in tears.

"It was the biggest relief anyone could ever feel. After that day, I cried every time I told someone I was cancer-free," Ritter said. "God was the best in all of this. God is great. He made sure I got my body scan and he sent Dr. Neel as my angel."

Dr. Neel said he just enjoys being able to help.

"It’s a blessing to be able to help folks and a blessing to be able to do something you really love for a living," he said.

Aside from Dr. Neel, Ritter also named Dr. Barbara Landaal, a doctor at Norman Regional Health System’s Breast Cancer Center, as one of her angels that helped her through the process.

Ritter said her total recovery time took about six weeks, with the help of her friend, Denise Wilburn, who came from Michigan to stay with her for the six-week time period.

She said she also found herself feeling like she was back to normal and wanting to do more than she was supposed to after her surgery because it was "such a simple and beautiful surgery and recovery."

Now, only two and a half months after her surgery, Ritter said she’s feeling great. She’s not on any oxygen and can walk up to a mile.

Ritter has four children, but she also began adopting soldiers about seven years ago. She sends them care packages with home-baked goods and makes sure they’re always taken care of.

"I had to get well quick because I just adopted a new soldier and I had to make sure she could get her care package," Ritter said. "I wasn’t worried about me after my surgery. I was just worried about taking care of all my kids. I had to get better for them."

Ritter was already cancer-free when she finally told her friends, family and solders about her lung cancer. She even took to Facebook to share her story and brag about how great God, Dr. Neel and robotic surgery truly are.

"I didn’t tell anyone before because I didn’t want any negativity during all of that, but when I finally told everyone, they couldn’t believe that I had cancer and already had surgery to remove it," Ritter said. "I still don’t even believe I had it."

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Although Ritter caught her lung cancer by a random scan, lung cancer is not something to leave up to chance. It is one of the most common cancers in the world and the leading cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.

Norman Regional offers a combined heart and lung scan. The screening utilizes a low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan to screen for lung cancer as well as measure the patient’s coronary artery calcium content.

A Norman Regional radiologist will read the scans. Patients will be notified of any abnormal findings by a specialized nurse navigator who will help guide the follow-up process. The screening also provides a baseline or point of reference for additional tests the patient may need.

There is no physician referral needed for the screening, and it takes less than 15 minutes.

The screening is offered for $79 at Norman Regional HealthPlex, I-35 and Tecumseh Road in Norman, and Norman Regional Moore, 700 S. Telephone Rd. in Moore.

The combined heart and lung scan is performed by appointment only. For more information or to make an appointment, call 405-307-2290.