Six years ago, Robert Clark thought he was having a stroke. His left eye drooped shut, and he began to have difficulty swallowing. A competitive body builder used to working out six times a week, Robert rarely got sick. So when a local physician dismissed his symptoms, he sought out a friend who worked at Mayo Clinic.
His friend recommended he see Paul Brazis, M.D., a physician who specializes in neuro-ophthalmology. After examining Robert, Dr. Brazis suspected myasthenia gravis, a rare autoimmune disorder characterized by weakness and fatigue of the skeletal muscles as a result of an enlarged thymus. The thymus, an H-shaped gland situated in the upper chest that produces T-cells to fight disease, is supposed to shrink after birth, when bone marrow takes over this function.
Following a series of tests, the diagnosis of myasthenia gravis was confirmed. Robert then faced difficult decisions about managing his disease while living life as he wanted.
Robert learned that one way to treat myasthenia gravis is to remove the thymus gland. The surgery had risksy — it would involve splitting Robert’s sternum — and the recovery would be lengthy.
A father of five, Robert opted to postpone surgery as long as possible. Instead, he began taking prednisone to help manage his symptoms. But the medication had side effects.
“My second youngest daughter was born when I was diagnosed, and I couldn’t see her,” Robert says. “Everything was blurry.”
Over time, as Robert’s symptoms increased, doctors increased his medication dosage. After four years, the medication's side effects were interfering with his quality of life, as were the double vision and headaches he experienced due to myasthenia gravis.
“It was horrible. There were times when I was on a high dose of prednisone, and it felt like someone was sitting on my chest,” Robert says. “You don’t feel normal. You feel like you’re fighting yourself everyday. It was hard to do simple things like holding one of my kids.”
In March 2013, Robert met Mathew Thomas, M.D., in Thoracic Surgery at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus. Dr. Thomas thought Robert might be a candidate for robotic thymectomy, a minimally invasive procedure where the thymus gland is removed through three small incisions on the side of the body.
“Patients go home the day after surgery, rather than spending three to five days in the hospital,” Dr. Thomas says. “Mayo Clinic is a high-volume center for thymectomies. With our expertise, I felt confident that Robert’s recovery would be much faster with a robotic thymectomy, and we could help him get his life back.”
On Sept. 30, 2013, Robert underwent the surgery with a multidisciplinary team of ophthalmologists, neurologists, radiologists and surgeons.
He noticed the difference immediately.
“Before surgery my muscles would lock up. It was hard to talk and hard to swallow,” Robert says. “But when I woke up in recovery, it was different. I told Dr. Thomas, ‘It’s gone. I don’t have any pressure on my left eye. I can move my eye. I can see and don’t have double vision.’”
Since his surgery, Robert has remained symptom-free.
“I feel so alive,” he says. “My kids are able to enjoy me and not see me tired all the time.”
Dr. Thomas recently ran into Robert at a basketball game and was pleased to see the difference in his once extremely fatigued patient.
“It was priceless to see him healthy and able to fully engage with his kids,” Dr. Thomas says. “It’s rewarding to know that he is able to move on with his life and do other things rather than focus on myasthenia gravis.”
For his part, Robert couldn’t be happier.
“I feel like I’ve been given a second chance,” he says. “I can’t thank Mayo enough, because they gave me my life back.”