When COVID-19 started rapidly spreading, hospitals throughout the country canceled elective surgeries to free up hospital beds and conserve protective equipment like masks and gowns. Surgery departments canceled everything from cosmetic procedures like tummy tucks and gastric bypasses to brain surgeries and organ transplants. In the Bay Area, all in-person care is delayed for all but the most worrisome cases.
“We shut down the O.R. almost lock, stock and barrel," said Dr. Philip Theodosopoulos, a UCSF neurosurgeon.
In mid-March, he says, nearly 2,000 procedures at UCSF medical center were canceled in order to prepare for a surge of COVID patients.
“These include cancer, aneurysms; include things that cause ischemia to the brain and to the body. This is not just brain surgery. This is all surgery.”
Seriously Ill Patients Weigh the Risks
Sassy Outwater-Wright is one patient who has had to wait. A rare cancer, called retinoblastoma, attacked her eyesight when she was a baby, causing her to lose her vision. Today the Berkeley resident runs an advocacy organization for the blind and visually impaired. She goes to the doctor a lot.
“We've kind of been playing whack-a-mole with tumors for the past 12 years,” said Outwater-Wright, a tall, 37-year-old redhead. “They get one; the other one starts growing. The other one needs attention; they get that one.”
There’s another tumor in her head right now. She was scheduled to have it removed, until her doctors determined it wasn’t safe to open her skull during a pandemic. Outwater-Wright was told the infection risk was too high.
The procedure is on hold. Her tumor isn't. She lies awake at night, weighing the risks.
“The threat to my life from a tumor that's sitting in my head versus the threat from a virus that's loose in a hospital,” she said. “And nobody can weigh those odds."