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When he needed world-class cancer care during a pandemic, this patient stayed close to home

Onie Pierce

Onie Pierce was back to work just weeks after surgery to replace his cancerous bladder with a new one made from a piece of his own intestine.

Articulating the benefits of Lawrence + Memorial Hospital as part of Yale New Haven Health might require a long list, yet Onie Pierce boils it down to a simple fact: he’s alive.

Pierce, 62, of Preston, learned he had bladder cancer after an endoscopic procedure to find out why he was urinating more frequently. This discovery led to surgery to remove some of the cancer, and a second surgery was scheduled to determine the direction of further treatment.

That’s when Pierce met Joseph Brito, MD, one of the Yale Urology specialists at L+M. Dr. Brito told Pierce about an advanced approach to treat his condition that would leave him free of bladder cancer, a procedure called a robotic cystoprostatectomy with orthotopic neobladder reconstruction. This highly complex procedure is commonly performed at Yale New Haven Hospital. Pierce was thrilled to learn that the operation could be done at L+M Hospital during the pandemic.

Joseph Brito, MD

The operation starts with removing the bladder and prostate with the assistance of the DaVinci Xi® surgical robot. Next, a piece of intestine is reshaped to create a new bladder that allows the patient to urinate voluntarily and maintain continence. The minimally invasive procedure takes approximately five hours and removes/uses about 60 cm (24 inches) of small intestine to create the new bladder. While L+M has had robotic surgery capabilities for several years, Pierce’s operation was the first of its kind at the hospital. In addition to Dr. Brito, the surgical team included John W. Colberg, MD, and Joseph F. Renzulli, MD, also members of Yale Urology. Dr. Renzulli also practices at L+M Hospital.

Scheduled for May, Pierce’s surgery was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, when only medically necessary surgeries were being allowed at L+M. Yet, Pierce said he always felt safe. He had to be tested for COVID-19 two days prior, then isolate himself until arriving at the hospital where he was again screened for COVID symptoms before entering the facility.

After analyzing the surgical specimens, a separate cancer was found in Pierce’s prostate – meaning he was cured of two cancers with one operation. In less than a week, Pierce was back to normal activities. By June, he was feeling good, pain free, and back to work as a painter.

“They definitely saved my life, and Dr. Brito was amazing,” Pierce said. “And the care I got while I was there – it was like I was the president. I got the red carpet treatment.” Pierce also raved about the hospital staff. “The nurses that work at L+M, they’re phenomenal,” he said. “Every single one of my nurses had a smile on their face. Every time they came in, they uplifted my spirits. And they always explained what was going to happen before it happened.”

Dr. Brito summed up the sentiments of the Yale Urology team, who are faculty at Yale School of Medicine and affiliated with Yale New Haven Health. “We were pleased to be able to help Mr. Pierce, removing his cancer and giving him a new bladder as well as a new lease on life,” Dr. Brito said. “The fact that we were able to bring these kinds of specialized urologic services to L+M is a source of pride for my partners and me, and more importantly it’s a great benefit to the patients in our area who can receive the highest levels of care without leaving their hometown.”

**DaVinci XI is a trademark of Intuitive Surgical.