Blog Global Health Center COVID-19

A personal perspective from a radiation oncology physician in the time of COVID-19

Written by Hiram Gay, MD, associate professor, Department of Radiation Oncology at Washington University in St. Louis

I am a radiation oncologist at the Siteman Cancer Center, and COVID-19 has impacted our patients and staff. The operation of our busy clinic has rapidly changed. At present, only essential personnel come to the clinic and many are remotely working from home: administrative staff, clinical trial assistants, dosimetrists who plan the treatments, our radiation therapists, who position the patients for their daily radiation treatments, and our nurses, who are our unsung heroes in the front lines. Follow-up visits, consults, and treatments are being delayed so the outcome of the patient won’t be compromised. When indicated, follow-ups and consults are done by phone to maximize social distancing. Our bustling department has an eerie feeling of emptiness with an absence of longtime work friends and colleagues.

Hiram Gay and his daughter.

I worry about making my elderly cancer patients sick if I develop COVID-19, and have taken social distancing quite seriously. Ironically, the feeling of social isolation perhaps has improved in my case. I am an introvert with few close friends, but I feel in recent times, I have connected with more people through WhatsApp, Messenger, texts or phone. We try to cheer each other up with silly memes, share information, or work on solutions to the crisis. When I am not at work, I spend most of the day confined to my apartment which has helped me empathize more with prisoners, although there is no comparison. I have gained a new appreciation of the many, many things I took for granted prior to this pandemic.

I share my seven year-old daughter with her excellent mom who works close to the lab processing the blood of suspected COVID-19 cases and may have to take that role in the future. Earlier this year, my daughter had both Strep throat and the common coronavirus, which triggered a dangerously high heart rate for which she will need a special procedure. Her procedure is now delayed until June due to COVID-19. To protect her and her maternal grandmother who is helping care for her, I have made the heartbreaking decision not to see her for the foreseeable future. The same applies to my mother who is a cancer survivor.

I don’t feel powerless against this crisis because previous projects I lead, with the support of many wonderful people, unexpectedly are helping others during this crisis. One was a paper on the lessons we learned from hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and another, the medical equipment donations we shipped to Guatemala thanks to the incredible generosity of BJC HealthCare. I am glad to have excellent colleagues and our next project hopefully will be implementing a method to sterilize masks to be reused in Guatemala. I have a sense of optimism for the future.