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'It is scary, and it is hard without family.' Treating cancer especially difficult amid COVID-19 precautions
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Carol Wild is a cancer patient diagnosed earlier this year with Hodgkin lymphoma. - photo by Scott Rogers
Carol Wild said she will never forget her first chemotherapy treatment at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s outpatient infusion center in Gainesville.  

Due to COVID-19 concerns, Wild -- a Gainesville native who was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in May – had to go through the treatment without the accompaniment of any friends or family. She said the infusion lab’s small size already would have made visitation difficult, but strict COVID-19 regulations made it impossible.  

Wild said during treatment she was shaking, due to fever and chills caused by her cancer, and crying in fear.  The hospital sent in a counselor to talk to her and calm her down, and she said nurses have held her hand during that first treatment and those since, which happen on a bi-monthly basis. But going through the ordeal without her loved ones has been a challenge. 

“It is scary, and it is hard without family,” she said. “The nurses have to do a whole lot more than they had to do before COVID for sure.” 

Visitation rules for all cancer patients, both inpatient and outpatient, have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Brenda Simpson, chief nursing officer at NGMC. Simpson said those hospitalized with cancer may receive one visitor from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. every day, but visitation outside those hours is prohibited. 

An exception is made for patients meeting for “discharge planning.” Those patients are allowed to invite a family member or friend to discuss treatment options for after the patient is released from the hospital.  

“There’s a host of discharge information about the medication that they’re taking, their activity levels, the care, the transition of care to going home,” Simpson said. “So, it’s very important that the patient has the opportunity to have, if they prefer, someone, whether it’s their spouse, significant other, to be present to hear and participate in that care.” 

Visitors coming either for discharge meetings or during the scheduled visitation times are required to wear masks, sign a waiver and don full personal protective equipment before entering a sick patient’s room, according to Simpson.  

Outpatient cancer patients like Wild – who are coming for regular treatments – are also not allowed to bring visitors, according to Jayme Carrico, executive director of oncology services for the Northeast Georgia Health System. 

Sandy Bozarth, NGMC’s infection prevention and control manager, said the regulations were put in place due to the limited PPE available and the risk of exposing cancer patients – who are often already immunosuppressed.  

Both Simpson and Carrico acknowledged the importance of having family support when going through an experience as difficult as having cancer.  

“When they feel nauseated, don’t feel well, don’t have an appetite, it’s the family support that really helps patients get through some of those obstacles and manage some of those symptoms,” Carrico said. “Just knowing that they're there is a huge resource for those patients that are going through a traumatic, challenging journey.” 

Simpson stressed the importance of having a strong support system for cancer patients, so they don’t feel like they’re going through the experience alone. She said NGMC was going through every measure possible to keep patients connected to their families despite sometimes not being able to see them physically.  

NGMC nurses have used video chat apps on iPads to keep families involved in treatment and support, according to Simpson.  

Wild said that during treatments, her nurses have helped in ways that exceed their typical, medical roles.  

“I feel like the nurses have had to be family members for everybody during this whole COVID process,” she said. “They have to be the family members, the nurses. They have to be everything. They have to wear all the hats. It is so hard to go through any of this hospital stuff without family.” 

Simpson said NGMC is constantly weighing all the needs of the patients as the center searches for the best policy for everyone involved. 

"It’s about the balance,” she said. “It’s the balance and finding the right balance for what's best for all and what’s best for that patient. So, we are continually, routinely looking at that balance and how can we do the very best for our patients in terms of visitation.” 

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