The world-renowned surgeon healing human hearts with robotic arms
“I’m a heart surgeon.”
When Dr. Bob Kiaii says these words, they carry particular weight. As an internationally acclaimed surgeon and now the new chief of the Division of Cardiothoracic Surgery here at UC Davis Health, Dr. Kiaii has spent the past two decades as a practicing heart surgeon. In that time, he’s amassed a long list of firsts in minimally invasive procedures that get patients back on their feet faster with fewer complications than traditional open-heart surgeries.
“I was there at the birth of computer-assisted cardiac surgery. I managed to be able to do many things for the first time,” he explains.
While the list is extensive, some highlights include: the world’s first aortic valve bypass using the Correx apical conduit, the world’s first repair of a perforation of the right atrium using the da Vinci robotic system, and North America‘s first simultaneous integrated coronary artery revascularization procedure.
After 18 years at his previous institution and establishing a very successful minimally invasive robotic cardiac surgery program, Dr. Kiaii chose UC Davis Health from a variety of potential opportunities because he believed it could be the chance of a lifetime. “What attracted me to UC Davis Health was the potential to be part of an institution building a center of excellence in transplantation and minimally invasive operations – my two subspecialties.”
After a year of visiting and interviewing, everything fell into place.
The next step
Soon after settling into his new role, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the West Coast and gave UC Davis Health the first apparent community-spread case handled on U.S. soil.
“Most of the elective operations were put on hold, but we got back on track quickly and resumed doing a great job. We will be establishing the minimally invasive program soon and offering it to suitable candidates across the region,” Dr. Kiaii says.
While minimally invasive surgery had been offered at UC Davis Health across cardiothoracic surgery and other programs , the introduction of Dr. Kiaii into the cardiothoracic division means a richer array of surgical procedures can be provided, specifically for the heart. From atrial fibrillation and mitral and aortic valve procedures to coronary artery revascularization.
Dr. Kiaii sees UC Davis Health as the natural next step in his career. A place where other physicians and surgeons remain open-minded, keen to learn new techniques, and are “extremely involved and committed to their work.”
His passion for discovering minimally invasive procedures was developed in places with a similar work ethic.
“I collaborated with a variety of different health care providers and scientists at my previous institution and intend to do the same thing here. We used to meet with computer and biomedical engineers and discuss modalities to utilize image guidance (X-rays, CAT scans, and MRI) for target localization in order to accomplish several minimal-access procedures,” he explains.
In working closely with other researchers and engineers, Dr. Kiaii has found ways to help patients who were at first seen as unlikely candidates for surgeries such as valve replacements. One of his deepest interests continues to be pushing the world of robotics further and building new innovative devices to create better care for patients.
“This work is rewarding. Every day I wake up and come to work and witness people able to resume their normal lives again. The most impactful to me are younger patients who are afflicted with a heart problem. Using minimally invasive surgical options, we’re able to get them back on their feet with a shorter recovery time,” he says.
For now, Dr. Kiaii has his sights set on the future and all that can be accomplished at UC Davis Health – both for local patients and for patients worldwide.
“Soon, UC Davis Health will be a center of excellence providing robotic and less-invasive procedures across a wide spectrum of health care disciplines. It will be a very unique center for patients in this region.”