Patients postpone life-saving tests and procedures to avoid Covid-19

By Alana McCaffrey

Nurse Felicia Nemick wheels an empty bed out of a room before moving another patient into it in a COVID-19 intensive care unit at Temple University Hospital's Boyer Pavilion in North Philadelphia on April 7, 2020. (Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

In 2008, then 65-year-old James McCaffrey was diagnosed with a condition called “idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis,” or scarring of the lungs which reduces the body’s ability to process oxygen.

He first started to notice trouble with his lungs when his passion of long-distance cycling became no longer enjoyable as breathing became difficult. In 2017, he went on 24/7 supplemental oxygen to help combat his inability to breathe on his own.

“There’s no cure,” McCaffrey said, “and the only thing to help would be a lung transplant.”

Over the past 12 years, he’s been to various medical centers in hopes of becoming eligible for a transplant, despite constant medical rejection as a result of his age and coronary history.

Currently, McCaffrey is being considered by Temple Lung Center for the potentially life-saving transplant. He explained how different Temple’s approach is to the whole process, by being more willing to perform the surgery despite the risks.

Nonetheless, he is facing some obstacles, especially regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. “COVID-19 has slowed this process down,” said McCaffrey, going further to explain the impact it’s had on his transplant qualification process. “It has delayed a lot of my qualifying procedures, like appointments with my cardiologist and gastroenterologist.”

McCaffrey is just one of many who have had to put their health issues on the back burner as health professionals prioritize those impacted by the pandemic.

Furthermore, “Covid-phobia,” as coined by the World Health Organization, has scared many into refusing to seek help for their noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), despite the higher risk these patients face of death by COVID-19.

“Many people who need treatment for diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes have not been receiving the health services and medicines they need since the COVID-19 pandemic began,”

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO

As a result of the lack of proper healthcare for those with NCDs, health professionals fear that some are just “dying at home” as they attempt to steer clear of contact with the virus.

In fact, the American Heart Association conducted studies to conclude that 22% of excess deaths from March to May of 2020 were not due to the coronavirus, but from other health conditions, and a majority of these deaths could have been avoided if not for patients’ fear of overburdening healthcare workers as a result of the pandemic.

Avoiding treatment as a result of COVID-19 has been directly reflected in hospital visitation statistics. From March to June, emergency room visits “declined by 23% for heart attacks, 20% for strokes and 10% for uncontrolled high blood sugar in people with diabetes,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

This prompted the AHA to launch their “Don’t Die of Doubt” campaign, encouraging those facing symptoms of heart attack or stroke to seek medical help immediately.

In short, the WHO, the CDC, and the AHA all agree on one message: don’t let the COVID-19 pandemic be cause to ignore other serious medical conditions and symptoms, as many have made the mistake of doing.

When asked if his actions align with the large sum of Americans who have made choices since March to not seek help for their medical issues, McCaffrey agreed.

“I have put off a lot of my tests and procedures to prepare for my possible lung transplant because of coronavirus, definitely, but it’s not only me,” he said. “Some of my doctors have told me that it’s better to wait it out so I don’t risk catching anything and making my condition worse.”

For time-sensitive illnesses, like McCaffrey’s lung scarring which makes daily life next to impossible, procedures do not have as much flexibility to be delayed. But non-urgent procedures were stopped in many hospitals around the country as they prepared for COVID-19 patients.

This raises the issue regarding many non-urgent screenings and tests often being a prerequisite for a larger procedure, such in McCaffrey’s case.

He is unable to move forward with his crucial lung transplant without various tests that he struggles to schedule as doctors prioritize those suffering from the pandemic.

“I just hope that corona[virus] is over sooner rather than later, like everyone else,” McCaffrey said. “I need my transplant to live, and I can’t get the transplant without the risk of dying that goes beyond the normal risk of a major procedure; it adds a whole other layer in the form of a deadly pandemic.”

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