Arrow-right Camera
Subscribe now


‘I need surgery, and I don’t know when I am going to get it’: COVID-19’s impact on other vital health care

The current COVID surge has led to a delay in procedures and surgeries that are “elective” but also important for many patients, including Colleen Gardner, who needs her gallbladder removed. Because she’s high-risk, she needs to have that surgery in the hospital. Her surgery was supposed to be this week, but now it’s been pushed to October.  (Dan Pelle/THESPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Emily Wynne needs a high-grade tumor in her left breast removed.

It will be the start of her breast cancer treatment, before the chemotherapy and the radiation.

But because her surgeon’s entire medical team has been called to COVID wards instead, Wynne waits, along with other community members whose procedures have been postponed.

The fifth wave of COVID cases, largely preventable, has sent shock waves through the entire health care system.

Some patients are told there is no way for them to be operated on because there is no hospital bed for them to recover in after (for one patient, this meant being in an operating room, then being told to go home).

Others receive devastating calls with medical news no one wants to hear, only to be followed by the crushing reality that they might not get necessary treatment for weeks.

That’s what happened to Wynne.

In May, after she was fully vaccinated, Wynne finally felt comfortable going back to her primary care provider. The local veterinarian and mother of two had found a lump in her breast, and she decided to tell her doctor about it.

She was able to get a mammogram this summer, and when the doctor ordered a biopsy, she began to realize it could be cancer. Wynne has a family history of breast cancer, but she is only 44. Her age prompted more tests on the lump, which has now been diagnosed as a high-grade tumor.

At the end of August, her surgeon ordered a few more tests before surgery. Wynne said at that time it wasn’t clear how her treatment would be impacted.

On Tuesday, she got the call.

“It was a smack in the face this week,” Wynne said. “I need surgery, and I don’t know when I am going to get it.”

Her surgeon estimated that it could be two weeks, and Wynne is expecting a phone call soon with a potential date, although she expects that to be pushed even further out.

Wynne is worried what further delays for her surgery mean for the cancer; her tumor needs to be removed quicker than lower-grade ones to keep the cancer from spreading. The surgery, which does not require an overnight stay, will also help doctors determine how severe her cancer is when they see her lymph nodes.

She’s already met with an oncologist to schedule chemotherapy after her surgery, but with no date on the books, she waits.

“I know I am not the only one; it’s just frustrating,” Wynne said. “I have two young kids, and I feel like I’m a young person, and I just think if this delay in surgery affects my prognosis it really sucks. I was up for doing whatever I need to do to give me the best chances.”

Some patients have grown accustomed to the rescheduling and simply wonder when there will finally be enough space in the hospital for them to safely be treated. Many patients need procedures that do not require an overnight stay in the hospital, but are postponed anyway.

Both MultiCare and Providence hospitals in Spokane County have been postponing elective and nonurgent procedures and operations since August, amid the worst surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations the Inland Northwest has seen.

As of Thursday, there are 231 COVID patients in the four Spokane County hospitals.

Surgeons and nurses are being reassigned to COVID or other medical wards, as ICUs are expanded to accommodate sicker and younger COVID patients.

Colleen Gardner has been in pain for more than two months. In mid-July, she went to see her primary care doctor once she noticed a pain around her stomach that would not go away.

She had gallstones blocking her gallbladder, causing digestion problems and pain.

The solution, her surgeon decided, was to remove her gallbladder entirely. Gardner, who is 75 and has survived cancer three times, has a few underlying health conditions that make the procedure more high-risk. Her doctors told her she would need to have the surgery in the hospital so they could monitor her lungs and heart.

The operation itself is not that invasive, however, and she could be out the same day if all goes well – that is, once she actually gets to have it.

Gardner’s procedure was scheduled for Tuesday, then pushed two days later. Now, her operation date is Oct. 11.

She’s not convinced her October date will hold, as case rates in Spokane County continue to increase each week.

“I’m not very optimistic that it will happen then, if things keep going the way they’re going,” Gardner said. “I’m not holding out a lot of hope it will happen then.”

Jeff Voigt thought he had a scheduled procedure for Sept. 23, and his surgeons recently notified him that it can’t be put on the calendar due to tight capacity. He’s unsure when he will get in to have his bladder stones removed.

He knows it’s a quick procedure, and he wouldn’t have to stay overnight. At this point, he said, he might just get it done in Arizona, when he goes down there in November.

Voigt and Gardner both said their procedures aren’t life-threatening, although inconveniences and pain persist.

For Gardner, just because it’s not life-threatening doesn’t mean her quality of life isn’t impacted. Any time she eats, she can expect a lot of abdomen pain for the following two hours.

Some mornings, she wakes up nauseated and doesn’t feel like eating anything. And then there’s the pain. Nothing can stop the ever-present pain in her side, other than removing the gallbladder and stones, of course.

“I am frustrated that I can’t have the surgery, but I am more frustrated about the reason I can’t have it,” she said. “It’s more heart-wrenching that all these people who aren’t getting vaccinated and ending up in ICU; a lot of them aren’t going to get out of there, and that’s what’s heart-wrenching to me, because it could have been preventable.”

In Washington, the vast majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations are in people who are unvaccinated.

In Spokane County, 61% of the eligible population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, meaning just under 40% of those who are eligible are unvaccinated.

State data show that the vaccines are keeping people out of hospitals, and inversely, those who are unprotected are at much higher risk.

In Washington, unvaccinated 12- to 34-year-olds are 30 times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than their fully vaccinated peers. Similarly, unvaccinated 35- to 64-year-olds are 21 times more likely to be hospitalized for the virus than their fully vaccinated peers.

Wynne said she got vaccinated to do her part to end the pandemic.

“I don’t think I am any more important than anyone else, but one of the main reasons I got vaccinated is so we didn’t have to make these decisions,” she said. “We’re all so sick of this pandemic, and I don’t think things are going to get better until we come together.”

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.