New surgical robot at SCL Health detects lung cancer more accurately than ever before

BILLINGS — Aspyn Bowman is thinking big about her career path.

“I think an operation. It’s really interesting to me,” she said.

If Bowman, a Billings West student enrolled in a medical careers course at the Career Center, was simply leaning towards becoming a surgeon before Monday, he could be right at the top right now.

“I’ve just always thought of it as an open process,” Bowman said, “but it’s very exciting to see all the opportunities that are emerging.”

The medical career class gained hands-on experience with two different surgical robots at St. Vincent Healthcare. One was the DaVinci, where the operator virtually controls tiny instruments just a few feet away from them. St. V surgeons have used it for a number of different procedures.

“What we’ve seen repeatedly in robotic surgery is less pain, an earlier return to function and activity,” said Dr. Jeff Rentz, general and thoracic surgeon at St. Vincent’s.

Da Vinci robot


The DaVinci robot allows the user to virtually control tiny instruments for various surgical purposes.

But Monday’s real star was the Ion, a camera-based robot that’s helping to diagnose lung cancer more accurately than ever.

“With this robot, we can get to places in the lungs that we’ve never seen before,” said Kristen Ronquillo, a St. Vincent registered nurse.

Ronquillo is passionate about the lung program and is a strong advocate for this new technology, the first of its kind in Montana. Two surgeons, including Rentz, have used it so far – good timing as November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, accounting for 25 percent of all cancer deaths. Each year more people die from lung cancer than from colon, breast and prostate cancer combined. Unfortunately, most lung cancer is only discovered after symptoms have appeared.

“Recently, up to 80 percent of people with lung cancer were already incurable at the time of diagnosis,” Rentz said. “But with early detection through CT scans, some places have been able to get this down to 50 percent of people.”

Cancer Robot


The Ion is a camera-based robot that allows users to see parts of a lung that they have never seen in a living patient before.

After the scan, the Ion can then confirm whether a lesion is cancerous and, in the same process, the DaVinci can remove it.

“This is the best we have in 2022 for bending the lung cancer mortality curve,” Rentz said. “And I think we’ll see it grow beyond the lungs. But this is a wonderful step forward.”

A great marriage of the future in technology and those who will use it.