WICHITA, Kansas — Doctors diagnosed Courtney Buchmann’s breast cancer on March 6, three days before the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Kansas.
Buchmann worried, as hospitals braced for an overflow of coronavirus patients, whether the potentially life-saving surgery she suddenly needed would be deemed elective.
Instead, a quick shift to online consultations with her doctors, the surgery went ahead without much change.
Yet the stress that comes with cancer remained. And a tough decision got rushed.
Right after her diagnosis, Buchmann quickly scheduled two appointments with doctors at the University of Kansas Cancer Center.
Her brother, a physician, went with her to her first appointment with her surgeon. She was hoping to bring her sister-in-law, an oncologist, to the next one a few days later. By that point, the doctor’s office wasn’t allowing any visitors to come to appointments.
“So as I had my appointments, COVID was really changing the landscape,” Buchmann said.
Those changes also altered a tough decision.
Rather than wait for the results of a genetic test that would help her decide on getting a double mastectomy, she went ahead and scheduled surgery to just remove the cancerous tissue.
“We wanted to go ahead and operate on the cancer I currently had while KU still had masks,” she said. “While they were still seeing cancer surgery as essential.”
About that same time, the American College of Surgeons began issuing guidance to hospitals on how to best prepare for the surge of COVID-19 patients. And which surgeries were truly needed. The group offered guidance to help prepare U.S. hospitals for the same problems other countries faced.
“Many hospitals were literally overwhelmed with admissions,” said David Hoyt, executive director of the American College of Surgeons. “So, just to free up beds to be able to care for these patients, to preserve protective equipment, gowns, gloves, masks. All the things that you need.”
And it seemed to work. While many people had to delay knee or hip replacements, Kansas hospitals have so far handled the influx of COVID-19 patients without too many issues.
Some models project Kansas will soon reach its peak, and that it has capacity to spare. Meanwhile, cancer treatment has gone forward almost the same as it had before.
The one major difference is that most appointments before and after surgery now happen online.
“Today, I have eight patients who showed up on my schedule,” Dr. Shaker Dakhil, president of the Cancer Center of Kansas said. “And beside their appointment, it says 'virtual visit.'”
He said the visits look very much like an in-person visit would. He has his computer in front of him. He asks them questions about their disease and listens to any of their concerns.
“We kept everything exactly the same,” he said, “and this has been working beautifully.”
Dakhil hopes that some of the changes made to deal with the coronavirus stick around after the pandemic.
And while it could be intimidating, health officials are encouraging people to not wait to get treated and try the new system.
“If there’s something that you think is important enough that you would call the doctor’s office, then consider a telemedicine appointment,” Lori Ranallo, nurse practitioner at the University of Kansas Health System Cancer Center and state ambassador for the American Cancer Society said.
Buchmann, the breast cancer patient, said she would have thought you were crazy if you’d told her back in February she’d be having doctor’s appointments over Zoom, but she’s now had three of those video calls.
“It hasn’t sent me into an extraordinary panic,” Buchmann said. “I would say I’m at baseline you-have-cancer panic.”
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org.
The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.