By Stephanie Stahl

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A first-of-its-kind robot-assisted spinal surgery happened at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

This was an incredibly complicated, difficult surgery and risky as the patient could have been paralyzed and the tumor on his spine had to come out in one piece.

But the team at Penn had a groundbreaking solution.

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“It’s an unbelievable story,” said Noah Pernikoff, the 28-year-old patient, who is amazed to see what surgeons did to save his life.

Pernikoff is the first patient in the world to have robot assisted spinal surgery to remove a rare tumor in his neck.

“It’s a small space surrounded by critical tissue,” said Dr. Neil Malhotra of Penn Medicine.

Dr. Malhotra, a neurosurgeon, put together a team of specialists to remove the tumor in a three-part, two-day surgery that spanned 20 hours.

“It sounded like it was out of a science fiction movie,” Pernikoff said.

The star was the trans oral robotic designed by Dr. Bert O’Malley.

“My hands can’t get down in throat but with these robotic arms, you can get into the throat and do the surgical procedure,” Dr. O’Malley said.

The robotic arms that include a camera are inserted through the mouth. Dr. O’Malley, sitting at a console, manipulates them with hand controls.

The robotic arms perform intricate maneuvers in a tiny space, in Noah’s case, exposing the spine through the back of his throat.

“The excitement about the robot is it allows us to do the operation with less trauma less collateral damage,” Dr. Malhotra said.

The operation started with an incision in the back of Noah’s neck to stabilize the spine and isolate the tumor. Then using the robot, it’s removed. The third phase reconstructs the spine.

Ten months later, Noah has some neck stiffness and occasional difficulty swallowing and there’s a scar on his neck.

“Kids focus on it all the time and ask me why I have a belly button in my neck?” Noah said.

It’s a battle scar for defeating cancer, with the help of some revolutionary medical intervention.

“That’s exciting to be part of technology development but most importantly, it’s exciting and it feels great to see a patient like Noah go through something that was horrific and look so well and do so well from it,” Dr. O’Malley said.

The robot is routinely used for throat cancer surgery. It was the first time it was used for Noah’s kind of cancer that’s located at the top of the spine.

Stephanie Stahl