Cancer-targeting surgical system has NASA engineer making sweet music again


Craig Rosczypala credits his family and friends<br />
with helping him recover from cancer.

Craig Rosczypala credits his family and friends with helping him recover from cancer.

May 17, 2013, was a day 48-year-old Craig Rosczypala of Heron’s Landing in Viera will never forget.

It wasn’t his birthday, his wedding anniversary or any other significant milestone in his life – rather, it was the day he learned he had an advance stage of rectal cancer.

“The news came out of nowhere,” said the 24-year NASA engineer at Kennedy Space Center.  “It really took me by surprise.”

The discovery began several weeks earlier when his wife, Leslie, a registered nurse who had worked for a gastroenterologist for about 10 years, wanted her husband to have a colonoscopy after he noticed “abnormalities” when he went to the bathroom.

“She was concerned for my health,” Rosczypala said, “and I had noticed a little bleeding in my stool.”

Rosczypapa, who plays piano at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Viera under the musical direction of Manfred Dreilich, had his colonoscopy on May 17, 2013.

“There was a little bit of family history with cancer,” Rosczypala said. “One of my sisters had breast cancer and survived and my father has prostate cancer and is being treated. But the last thing I expected to hear was that I had rectal cancer at my age.”

When told by his doctor, Dr. H. Drexel Dobson III, a member of the medical staff at Wuesthoff Medical Center-Rockledge, that if he did nothing he would eventually die, Rosczypala said “the engineering side of me came out, the processing side. I asked: what do I do?”

The next day, Rosczypala had an ultrasound colonoscopy done. This procedure determined the size of the tumor. “It was shaped like a half-moon on the inside of my internal walls of my colon,” he said.

In Rosczypala’s case, he was diagnosed to be at Stage II because the cancer had spread inside fatty tissue surrounding the rectum. After hearing the news about his cancer, Rosczypala played the piano the next day at a funeral at St. John the Evangelist for one of the choir members who had died earlier in the week.

“I was an emotional wreck,” he recalled. “It was very hard for me. I saw the body in the casket, in the aisle, in the church and the choir singing, and I was imagining myself in that casket. I went to the darkest corners of my mind. I didn’t tell anybody about my cancer.”

After researching his cancer and talking with his doctor, Rosczypala was confident he would win his battle. He credits his family, friends and music with helping him “get through this time.”

Rosczypala’s musical career began when he was 4½ years old. He was born in Lewiston, N.Y., near Buffalo, and his parents owned a piano. He said he wanted to learn how to play because he had two older sisters who played and wanted to do what they were doing.

“I was interested in music because of the order and organization associated with it,” he said. “Music also enabled me to have a creative side and I liked that.”

After graduating with bachelor’s degrees in physics, mathematics and mechanical engineering from the State University of New York at Ferdonia and the University of Buffalo, Rosczypala joined NASA as an engineer in 1990 and later went to work at Kennedy Space Center.

At KSC, Rosczypala oversees the procedure and provides fuel for all launch vehicles. Despite recent layoffs, he says some jobs will return because NASA is committed to building the next heavy launch vehicle by 2017, but in the meantime “we’re going to remain small because we’re still supporting U.S. commercial programs out there.”

After receiving the news about his cancer, Rosczypala began his preliminary treatment before surgery – six weeks of radiation followed by chemotherapy.

“The radiation wasn’t too bad – five days a week for six weeks,” Rosczypala said. “And it wasn’t until the latter end of the treatment did I feel some physical pain in the groin area. On the other hand, the chemotherapy was terrible.”

Radiation is the burning of the body while chemotherapy poisons the body, Rosczypala explained.

“I had a chemo pump 24 hours a day, seven days a week that injected drugs into my body and bloodstream,” he said. “I was fine the first two weeks, but then I developed mouth sores, lip sores, my fingernails and toe nails were breaking. I was sore. I had headaches, dry skin. It was killing my body slowly. I was off from work for a month.”

After the radiation and chemotherapy treatments, Rosczypala said he had to wait another six to eight weeks for his body to heal before undergoing surgery.

Although he couldn’t play the piano at church because his fingers were hurting, Rosczypala said he got a lot of love and support from the St. John choir and congregation.

On Oct. 14, 2013, Dr. Dobson performed the first of two surgeries at Wuesthoff Medical Center in Melbourne. Dr. Dobson removed the tumor and closed off Rosczypala’s colon to allow it to heal.

Da Vinci Surgical System

Dr. Dobson performed the surgery using the da Vinci Surgical System. The system is a sophisticated robotic platform designed to expand the surgeon’s capabilities and offer a state-of-the-art minimally invasive option for major surgery.

According to the company’s Web site – www.davincisurgery.com — small incisions are used to insert miniaturized wristed instruments and a high-definition 3D camera. Seated comfortably at the da Vinci console, the surgeon views a magnified, high-resolution 3D image of the surgical site inside your body.

“You get a finer and more accurate dissection,” Dr. Dobson explained. “You’re able to be in the appropriate place where you need to be, especially the farther or lower the cancer is, the lower you can get.”

Dr. Dobson said when you perform the surgery from the outside you are impaired by the actual rectum itself and you have to use special retractors that pull open the area, but with the da Vinci Surgical System, you inflate the abdomen with carbon dioxide and that helps to hold the tissue out of the way.

Dr. Dobson also said the robotic system helps prevent injures to nerves, helps maintain “the plane” that we’re in and helps surgeons remove the cancer and lymph nodes without damaging any other structures in the area.

Dr. Dobson also said the success rate is greater because it is more accurate, more delicate and is a less traumatic way of removing the cancer.

“You can accomplish your goal in a very tight space,” he said.

Although it is often called a robot, the da Vinci System cannot move or operate on its own; the surgeon is totally in control. Physicians have used the system successfully worldwide in about 1.5 million various surgical procedures to date.


Second surgery

On Jan. 29, Rosczypala had his second surgery in which Dr. Dobson reconnected his small intestine to his large intestine.

“Everything works,” Rosczypala said. “I’m eating normally now. The biggest thing was my large intestine didn’t know what to do because it hadn’t seen food in three months. So my body had to learn how to re-digest food. Doctor says it will take a year for my body to retrain itself.”

Rosczypala said the experience has brought him closer to his family, friends and the many people at St. John. It’s also made him enjoy his music more.

“It really helped to have a good support group,” he said. “My support group was the hundreds of families that knew about what I was going through and then shared some of their similar experiences with me. It helped me have a good outlook on life.

“When I play music, that is how I express my emotions,” he continued. “I’m not an emotional person to talk to, but I finally realized where all this emotion is coming from – it’s coming from my fingertips when I play. The love and gratitude that I give back is through my playing. I want to make people feel the emotions I’m feeling through my playing. I love playing at St. John. I look forward to coming here every Sunday. I never had that feeling anywhere else I played.”