Watch me pull a kidney out of a vagina

Kidney donations occur every day, but most do not come out through the vagina. The case of a 48 year old woman whose donated kidney was retrieved through her vagina has made headlines, and rightly so. This is the future: natural orifice surgery.

So says NOSCAR (Natural Orifice Surgery Consortium for Assessment and Research) a collaborative of specialist surgeons. Conveniently, the acronym conveys the principle benefit of the surgery, no scar. In reality, there is a scar, but it is located internally. A kidney or appendix can be removed through the vagina. A gallbladder can be removed through the stomach and pulled out the esophagus. And that’s just the beginning. This represents a real paradigm shift in surgery.

Back in the Dark Ages, when I went to medical school, having surgery meant a substantial surgical incision. The kidney was removed through a large incision in the flank; the gallbladder came out through a large incision curving from the right upper abdomen toward the back; even the appendix, small as it is, required a 3-4 inch incision in the right lower abdomen. Since the skin incision is the most painful part of surgery, most surgical procedures required days or weeks of recovery, and substantial amounts of pain medication in the immediate post operative period.

All that changed with the introduction of the laparoscope, whose use was pioneered by gynecologists. The laparoscope was originally nothing more than a long tube with an eye piece and a light source. The laparoscope could be introduced into the abdominal cavity through a one inch incision located immediately below the navel. It provides a nearly complete view of the abdomen and pelvis. With the addition of a manipulating rod, introduced through a half inch incision in the lower abdomen, various types of simple surgery could be performed.

The laparoscope was a tremendous boon to gynecology patients. Many different gynecological problems present with similar symptoms. Sometimes symptoms made one diagnosis far more likely than the others, but all too often, the wrong treatment was implemented initially, or actual surgery was required to look into the pelvis and see what was going on. In the case of pelvic infection, the surgery turned out to be unnecessary in retrospect.

The laparoscope changed all that. Now if there was any doubt, the patient could have laparoscopy. The doctor could look into the pelvis directly to make the correct diagnosis and the woman was left with a tiny incision small enough to be covered by a bandaid. And they could do far more than look. With the advent of special instruments, a ruptured tubal pregnancy or an appendix could be removed. Fallopian tubes could be easily, and ovarian cysts, or an entire ovary could be removed using the scope. And in every case, the patient had far less pain and a very quick recovery. Patients went home the very same day as their surgery, with only one or more bandaids providing evidence that any surgery had occurred.

Gynecologists encouraged surgeons to embrace the technology. Now gallbladders and kidneys are routinely removed using the laparoscope. One thing did not change, however. Laparoscopy continued to require little incisions in the abdomen through which the scope and the instruments were inserted. And in the case where something large like a kidney was removed, a separate, larger incision was required to pull the organ out. That increased the pain and the recovery time.

Natural orifice surgery is a logical extension of laparoscopy. In natural orifice surgery, the laparoscope or the instruments are introduced through a tiny incision in a natural orifice. So, for example, in a “no scar” appendectomy, the scope is still inserted below the navel, but the instruments go in and the appendix comes out through an incision in the upper vagina. Now instead of 2 or 3 small abdominal scars, an appendectomy leaves one small abdominal scar, and one larger, unseen scar in the upper vagina.

An even greater benefit is that removal of organs like the kidney, that used to require a 2-3 inch incision to get the kidney out of the body, can be done with a similar incision in the upper vagina. A vaginal incision results in far less pain. The woman who donated her kidney declared that the donation was far easier than having a baby, and far less painful than when she had had her gallbladder removed through a traditional incision.

As natural orifice surgery is becoming more popular, surgeons are becoming more creative. How about removing the gall bladder through a small incision in the stomach? What about abdominal surgery done through a small incision in the rectum? Some surgeons are even exploring the possibility of urinary tract surgery done through a small incision in the bladder.

To be sure, there are technical difficulties that must be overcome. For example, in the case of the donated kidney, dragging it through the bacteria filled vagina before placing it in another person raises the risk of serious infection. Yet technical problems often lead to ingenious solutions. In the case of kidney donation, the first step is to enclose the kidney in a sterile plastic bag tied at the top. When the kidney is released from its attachments, it is removed through the vagina by simply pulling out the sterile bag, kidney enclosed.

Natural orifice surgery is not for everyone. Anyone who has internal adhesions (scarring) from previous surgery is often not a candidate for any kind of laparoscopic surgery. Natural orifice surgery is not appropriate for cancer surgery where it is critical to explore every corner of the abdomen and pelvis to make sure there is no cancer left behind.

“No scar” surgery represents a natural evolution in surgery. The operations have stayed the same, but the incisions have been shrinking and are now being placed in hidden areas. Pain and recovery time are dramatically reduced. It is still preferable to avoid surgery all together, but when that is not possible, natural orifice surgery can dramatically improve the experience.