Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Oct. 19, 2021

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COVID-swamped hospitals postpone other treatments

Doctors warn: Amid delta surge, it’s a bad time to be sick in Oregon


It’s a bad time to get sick in Oregon. That’s the message from some doctors, as hospitals fill up with COVID-19 patients and other medical conditions go untreated.

Charlie Callagan looked perfectly healthy sitting outside recently on his deck in the smoky summer air in the small Rogue Valley town of Merlin, in southern Oregon. But Callagan, 72, has a condition called multiple myeloma, a blood cancer of the bone marrow.

“It affects the immune system; it affects the bones,” he said. “I had a PET scan that described my bones as looking ‘kind of Swiss cheese-like.’”

Callagan is a retired National Park Service ranger. Fifty years ago, he served in Vietnam. This spring, doctors identified his cancer as one of those linked to exposure to Agent Orange, the defoliant used during the war.

In recent years, Callagan has consulted maps showing hot spots where Agent Orange was sprayed in Vietnam.

“It turns out the airbase I was in was surrounded,” he said. “They sprayed all over.”

A few weeks ago, Callagan was driving the nearly four-hour trek to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for a bone marrow transplant, a major procedure that would have required him to stay in the hospital for a week and remain in the Portland area for tests for an additional two weeks. On the way, he got a call from his doctor.

“They’re like, ‘We were told this morning that we have to cancel the surgeries we had planned,’” he said.

Callagan’s surgery was canceled because the hospital was full. That’s the story at many hospitals in Oregon and in other states where they’ve been flooded with COVID patients.

OHSU spokesperson Erik Robinson said the hospital, which is the state’s only public academic medical center and serves patients from across the region, has had to postpone numerous surgeries and procedures in the wake of the delta surge of the pandemic. “Surgical postponements initially impacted patients who needed an overnight hospital stay, but more recently has impacted all outpatient surgeries and procedures,” Robinson wrote.

Callagan said his bone marrow transplant has not yet been rescheduled.

Such delays can have consequences, according to Dr. Mujahid Rizvi, who leads the oncology clinic handling Callagan’s care.

“With cancer treatment, sometimes there’s a window of opportunity where you can go in and potentially cure the patient,” Rizvi said. “If you wait too long, the cancer can spread. And that can affect prognosis and can make a potentially curable disease incurable.”

The problem extends beyond cancer care.

“I’ve seen patients get ready to have their open-heart surgery that day. I’ve seen patients have brain tumor with visual changes, or someone with lung cancer, and their procedures are canceled that day and they have to come back another day,” said Dr. Kent Dauterman, a cardiologist and co-director of the regional cardiac center in Medford, Ore. “You always hope they come back.”

In early September, Dauterman said, the local hospital had 28 patients who were waiting for open-heart surgery, 24 who needed pacemakers, and 22 who were awaiting lung surgeries. During normal times, he said, there is no wait.

Right now, the vast majority of patients in Oregon hospitals with COVID are unvaccinated, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

COVID infections are starting to decline from the peak of the delta wave. But even in non-pandemic times, there’s not a lot of extra room in Oregon’s health care system.

At his home in southern Oregon, Callagan said he doesn’t consider his bone-marrow transplant as urgent as what some people are facing right now.

“There’s so many other people who are being affected,” he said. “People are dying waiting for a hospital bed. That just angers me. It’s hard to stay quiet now.”