I’m one of many Americans waiting in limbo for a surgery because of coronavirus. I have a hip problem that cannot be solved with physical therapy, and my quality of life is miserable while I wait for the hospital — cleared out to make way for potential COVID-19 patients — to reschedule my procedure.
Each step I take is a deep, painful grinding feeling that makes my leg ache, and on my doctor’s advice, I’ve moved to a wheelchair. It’s hard to sleep and to get comfortable sitting, and since my children are home from school because of this shutdown, they’ve noticed how little I’m able to play with them.
They won’t remember this as a time of family walks and of us sitting in the grass, watching clouds pass as we shelter in place. They will remember their mom, trying to hide her pain, avoiding activities, and struggling not to worsen the situation with a wrong move. I’m heartbroken and full of angst knowing that this could have been prevented with better preparations.
In early March, the American College of Surgeons recommended that elective procedures be rescheduled for after the outbreak. The rationale put forward was that postponing procedures would free hospital beds for waves of COVID-19 patients — whenever those waves would hit. It would prevent using up personal protective equipment, or the masks, gowns, and gloves surgical teams wear during procedures, saving those for staff to use in caring for coronavirus patients.
In many places, however, this wave still hasn’t hit. New York, New Jersey, California, and Michigan all have large numbers of cases, but many other states have managed to flatten their curves. Projections now show that even California will have sufficient beds to see it through its anticipated peak cases.
My state is one of those with empty hospitals cleared out for coronavirus patients who are not materializing in numbers anywhere close to even keeping hospital workers busy. We’ve listened to experts. We’re social distancing. Our world is on hold in a sincere effort to save lives. Yet these efforts are also hurting people’s lives, like mine.
The Human Cost of Delaying Elective Surgery
But there’s a quiet cost behind these delays for all those whose procedures have been canceled. It’s people who have been living in pain waiting on joint replacements. Cataract surgeries are delayed, blurring vision. Also pushed off is surgical intervention for early-stage cancer, leaving patients waiting with the hope that these delays don’t allow their cancer to spread undetected.
These holding patterns affect more than just the patient. My family watches me living in pain daily, with no end in sight. Nobody has introduced a plan nor predicted a date when surgeries and scheduling will resume — even in places past the projected peak. This means no foreseeable end for patients’ poor quality of life, their reduced ability to parent, and their inability to participate fully in their work. It could also mean worse health for them as treatments for their needs are delayed.
All the fast policy rollouts designed to minimize COVID-19 infections have a real human cost, a cost lost in so many of the discussions about this. In the days and months to come, how many seemingly non-urgent conditions will progress and become irreversible because of care delays?
There has already been a rise in suicides, and in people attempting suicide or reaching out for crisis mental health care. Consigning people to live in pain, to cope with the knowledge that their cancer is not being quickly treated or that their reversible condition could become unfixable because of a delay in treatment — these are concrete human costs.
Planning for surgery, especially a major surgery, requires extensive preparation. Beyond just the procedure logistics, patients must consider recovery. For families with children at home, the planning become even more complicated. Finding care for the kids during surgery, plus the following inpatient time, can be complex.
People must also consider leaves of absence from work and school, as well as other life plans that are put on hold. Fellow patients I’ve talked to mentioned they took this semester off college or delayed accepting job offers, planning to have surgery and recover, only to be left adrift now.
Not Everyone Who Is Suffering Has COVID-19
It’s almost impossible to explain the disruption that this has caused for so many without looking like you don’t understand the pandemic or the risks to hospital workers. No one wants to be judged for sounding like he thinks his cataract surgery is more important than a global pandemic, but individual patients really have no control over supply-chain issues or policies.
Where are the tallies of patients like me in the COVID-19 crisis? I see none. Where are the websites dedicated to tracking the mental health tolls for people trying to cope with the disruptions, with the fears that things will not normalize, or at least not in time to help them?
We’re not publishing this data daily like we do infection rates, but it is real, and deserves to be counted. We are ignoring the suffering of so many Americans. It’s wrong to discount the toll these delays will take, for years to come, on Americans, including our friends, our families, and ourselves.
Coronavirus patients are not the only Americans with significant health needs. Focusing only on coronavirus deaths and illnesses doesn’t tell the full story of what is happening in America. Other patients, waiting with no end in sight, deserve not to be forgotten.
The author is a regular writer for The Federalist who requested anomymity to keep personal medical information private.