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A gift from a retired NASA astronaut and his wife is helping Billings Clinic buy a high-tech surgical robot, the hospital announced on Wednesday.

The $500,000 donation made by Frank and Susan Borman will cover about one-third of the cost of the da Vinci Si surgical system. The Billings Clinic Foundation is seeking donations to pay the balance.

Part of the community

“In the first 12 years of our marriage, I moved Susan 17 times,” Frank Borman said during a press conference at the hospital Wednesday morning. “We’re here in Billings now. We love it. We want to be part of the community.”

Borman was commander of the Apollo 8 mission that in 1968 became the first manned aircraft to circle the moon. He and Susan live near Custer.

Borman was treated for prostate cancer with robotic-assisted surgery at the Mayo Clinic. The da Vinci system will allow similar procedures to be conducted at Billings Clinic.

St. Vincent Healthcare is also buying the system, and hospitals in Missoula, Great Falls and Casper, Wyo., already have it.

“It’s sort of like when Henry Ford made the Model A, it had a crank starter,” said Dr. David Chavez, a urologist with Yellowstone Urology, an affiliate of St. Vincent Healthcare. “It was a good model, but it was still crude. Now this is like putting an electric starter on the car.”

Da Vinci works as an extension of a surgeon’s hands, allowing her to perform more-delicate movements in smaller spaces than can be done in traditional operations.

New direction

“It really offers patients a new direction — less pain, less blood loss, quick return to activity,” said Dr. Lisa Bland, a Billings Clinic urologist. “Patients really do better with this intervention.”

It can be used for prostate, kidney, gynecological and cardiac surgeries, said Dr. Richard Melzer, another Billings Clinic urologist.

“It’s going to allow us to do things we haven’t had the chance to do before with minimally invasive technology,” Melzer said.

The robotic system does not act on its own and cannot make any movements unless it is directed to do so, doctors said.

“A lot of people may have concerns about a robot supplanting a surgeon’s expertise,” said Dr. Chris Montville, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Billings Clinic. “But it’s really an extension of what we can do in the operating room.”

The da Vinci is expected to arrive at Billings Clinic in January. Several physicians have already been trained to use it.

Contact Diane Cochran at or 657-1287.