With 2 new surgeons on staff, local patients staying closer to home for procedures

HORNELL — Old newspaper scribes are known to say that in politics, everything is local.

That same slogan is quickly becoming applicable to medicine as St. James Hospital in Hornell expands options for performing surgeries locally.

When UR Medicine’s St. James Hospital welcomed two full-time general surgeons to its medical staff last summer, the goal was to strengthen the general surgery presence in and around Hornell through leading-edge techniques and enhanced surgical capabilities.

The addition of Brian P. Watkins, M.D., M.S., F.A.C.S., and Adam Basler, M.D., continued the legacy that longtime Hornell surgeon A. Byron Collins, M.D., has built in the community over the past five decades, UR Medicine and St. James Hospital officials said.

Prior to coming to the Maple City, Watkins spent 12 years as a general surgeon practicing in Rochester. He received his medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Basler, who is also based in Hornell, received his medical degree from Rush Medical College in Chicago and recently graduated from his surgical residency at Michigan State University.

Watkins was also named division chief for UR Medicine Regional Surgery, working collaboratively with established surgeons at affiliates Jones Memorial in Wellsville and Noyes Health in Dansville as the team focuses on strategies to grow the programs at their respective hospitals.

“We want people to know that we can do most surgical things here,” Watkins said. “We’re looking to be able to provide most of the surgical care in the region. Between the three hospitals — St. James, Noyes and Jones — we should be able to care for most of the surgical patients.”

As the recently arrived surgeons establish themselves in the area, St. James Hospital and local patients are sharing some early success stories with The Spectator readership. Here are three of those stories. 

Stacey Heary

The 56-year-old Friendship, N.Y. wife and mother works for Literacy West/Core, serving as the assistant director of after school programs at Belfast Central School.

Six years ago — while suffering from severe back pain — she was diagnosed with diverticulitis, the inflammation or infection of small pouches called diverticula that develop along the walls of the intestines.

The ailment had a negative impact on nearly every aspect of Heary’s life — from her profession to her free time.

“I’m basically a healthy eater, always have been healthy, so it was kind of a blow to me to have something,” Heary said. “It’s not life-threatening, but it can be very serious, and it can affect a lot in your life, and it did for me.

“I always had to watch what I ate, and the thing was we never could determine what triggered it, what foods triggered it: was it the strawberries I ate on a salad, was it popcorn I ate at the theater? We were never sure what caused it.

“When I would have an attack, I was down for a straight week or longer. I was at home. I couldn’t go to work. I couldn’t go anywhere. The pain was so severe. Just walking from my bedroom to my bathroom was like running a marathon. It was so exhausting and so painful, and the medications you take for it, that’s what causes it . . . they just take such an impact on your body, and I had to go through that so many times because that’s protocol.”

Heary became progressively sicker as time went on.

“At first, I’d have an attack maybe every six months, so I’d be, ‘Okay, I got through it. I’m fine,’ and then I’d go six months, and all of a sudden, I knew immediately when I got the pain in my back that’s what it was,” she recounted.

As the attacks became more frequent and debilitating, Heary began missing weeks of work at a time and feeling so physically drained that it was a chore to get out of bed. According to Heary, her primary care physician eventually said basically: “Okay. Enough is enough.” She was referred to Dr. Watkins, the new Hornell surgeon who joined the St. James Hospital staff last summer.

Heary said her first meeting with Watkins put her at ease.

“He went over everything with me. (He) wanted to know about every attack that I had, wanted to know what was going on,” she remembered. “Then he explained to me in full detail everything that was causing this and what we could do to repair it.”

Last Dec. 17, Watkins performed a laparoscopic sigmoid resection for Heary. The surgery took place at Noyes Memorial Hospital in Dansville for Heary’s convenience, but the procedure can be done at St. James.

The surgical procedure uses small incisions and requires the aid of a camera. Because laparoscopy requires much smaller incisions than “open” surgical procedures, it results in less pain, a lower risk of infections and hernias, a quicker recovery, and better patient satisfaction, Watkins said.

“There’s a huge benefit,” he added.

Heary’s surgery, with Basler assisting, made history.

“(It was) certainly the first laparoscopic colon resection done by Hornell surgeons, and one of the very few that have been done in the region,” Watkins said. “Most of the procedures that are offered in other facilities are offered in an open (surgical) fashion. It is standard in most areas, but in rural areas it is not as standard.”

Heary described her short stay in the hospital following surgery.

“I got up that night, started walking the halls,” Heary said. “The nurses were a little shocked because they said people usually don’t get out of bed until the next morning.”

Her recovery remained on track the next day. It was too early to eat solid food, but her pain was easily managed. “I wasn’t taking any pain medicine, any narcotics. I just took the ibuprofen,” Heary said.

Heary went home two days after surgery. She followed the discharge instructions, sitting or lying down when she felt discomfort and eating cautiously to begin with — starting with soft foods to make sure everything was passing through properly.

“About a week later, I started eating everything, and I’ve eaten everything ever since, and I have had not one issue, nothing,” Heary said. “I feel amazing, like I could run a marathon.

“I don’t wake up in the morning anymore with a stomach ache. For those six years, I would wake up in the morning, just like my stomach was always upset. To wake up in the morning and feel this good all the time, it’s just amazing.

“My husband and I travel a lot, and it’s nice to know that I don’t have to worry about waking up one day and having an attack because you pretty much have to stay wherever you are. Traveling back would be so horrible to have to travel like that. It’s nice, it’s nice not to have to worry about that anymore.”

At St. James, Watkins is gratified that Heary has thrived after the surgery and that the facilities and know-how are in place right here locally to help additional people.

“We have great laparoscopic equipment in the region, certainly in Hornell, and at Noyes,” he said. “I love it. People (here) are great. Obviously the facilities are wonderful. Patients in this area deserve care and there are not many surgeons — the workforce shortage in rural areas is incredible. And unless we come up with ways to deal with that, more hospitals will close.”

Heary is sharing her story because she wants to let others who may be suffering from the same ailment that there is real chance to get well.

“There may be a lot of people out there who are going through this, but have no idea that they can have this done and feel fantastic,” Heary said.

Jack Grillo

A 55-year-old Hornell native who works at Alstom, last Father’s Day Grillo attempted to move a large log in his yard by himself. Wrong move.

He heard a “pop” and shortly thereafter noticed a bulge on the left side of his groin area. He went to his primary care physician who wanted to refer him a surgeon in Corning.

“My wife, who works at St. James Hospital, knew about the two new surgeons at St. James and suggested I give them a try,” Grillo said.

Grillo made an appointment with Watkins.

“Dr. Watkins said I had a large (inguinal) hernia, and suggested surgery to fix it,” Grillo said.

Often a hernia is just under the surface of the skin. When that’s the case, Watkins recommends doing an “open” procedure rather than laparoscopy (minimally invasive) for first-time hernias, unless a patient is coming back to fix a previous hernia repair.

“The way I perform this repair has the lowest recurrence rate in the literature,” Watkins said. “The literature says 0.5 percent recurrence with this open procedure – it’s the best repair you can get for a first-time hernia.”

Grills said his recovery was quick and relatively painless, and no narcotics were needed for pain control.

“I was up and walking around the day after, and recovered after three weeks,” he said. “Plus, I was the ‘test dummy’ for the novocaine ball.”

Watkins explained, “The on-Q pain system (aka novocaine ball) is a non-narcotic pain control method for post-operative recovery – an alternative way of dealing with pain directly at the site.”

During surgery, the surgeon places a tiny tube that connects to a balloon-like ball typically filled with novocaine. After surgery, the patient carries the stretchy plastic ball around in a pouch. This pain-release system releases long-acting novocaine at a slow rate directly to the surgical site.

“Following the instructions Dr. Watkins provided, I pulled it out myself without any problem,” Grillo said.

In addition to the quick and relative pain-free recovery, Grillo said he had a good experience with the surgical team at St. James Hospital.

“The care was really good – I was impressed. I was in and out quickly and home by 10:30 or 11 that morning.”

Grillo has high praise for Watkins.

“He was really thorough, the healing process was great, and the scar is very unnoticeable,” Grillo said. “I would recommend his procedure.

“I’m glad I did it here instead of driving all the way to Corning . . . it was local, right here, and I’m totally satisfied. Thank God I stayed here.”

Jay Dreyer

Dreyer, 64, is a Canisteo resident and regional mortgage lender for Community Bank in Elmira, as well as a jogger and an active, do-it-yourself guy.

“Last summer I decided to pour my own sidewalk, carrying 80# bags of cement,” he said. “I felt a pain in my side, and thought I had pulled a muscle. I later went to my primary care physician who ordered an ultrasound, but nothing (definitive) showed."

The abdominal pain persisted and got worse as the months wore on.

“In November I got a cold with a cough and my side was really sore . . . I knew something was wrong,” Dreyer said.

Dreyer’s primary care physician suspected a hernia and suggested he set up an appointment with a surgeon.

“I wanted to stay local,” Dreyer said, so he scheduled a consult with Watkins, who confirmed the PCP’s suspicion.

Watkins explained the surgical option along with the risks and the rewards.

“Dr. Watkins was pretty frank and said it’s not a difficult surgery but there are different levels of recovery,” Dreyer said. “He made me feel completely comfortable. I didn’t think about pain being an issue . . . I wanted to get in and out and have it done.”

Dreyer underwent the procedure last November at St. James Hospital. Being close to home, he felt “like I was among family and friends.”

Watkins did an “open” procedure to fix Dreyer’s hernia.

“We can use mild sedation rather than general, and place the mesh into the ‘open’ space, below and above the tear,” Watkins explained. “That makes the abdominal wall stronger than it was before.”

Dreyer’s recovery well very well.

“I had my surgery on Friday and was back to work on Tuesday . . . amazing,” he said. “My recovery was exactly as Dr. Watkins told me and I was virtually pain-free. It only felt like there was a ‘Sharpie’ in my side, which got better over time. It was absolutely pain-free except the feeling like a cut that’s healing. And I was back to exercise in ten days.”

And Dreyer didn’t have to travel any further than the five or six miles between Canisteo and Hornell.

Watkins summed it up, “A hernia can be such an easy operation, there’s no reason to travel out of town. That’s why I’m here.”

Drs. Watkins and Basler see patients at 7309 Seneca Road North, Suite 102, Hornell, NY 14843. To refer a patient, please call (607) 385-3820.