When Ronnie Krensel went in for his most recent checkup following chemotherapy on March 21, it wasn’t anything like the ones he’d had before. Upon his arrival at the Southhampton Stony Brook Hospital in Long Island, N.Y., a doctor met Krensel in a hazmat suit in a large tent outside the facility, where he was asked “a series of rapid-fire questions” and then sent to a negative-pressure room, which prevents cross-contamination, for his visit.
“The trip to the hospital was like so many other moments during this pandemic,” he said, “like a scene from a movie.”
Currently in the U.S., there are more than 200,000 cases, with the largest number in New York State, especially in and around New York City.
In mid-December, Kresel, 53, was diagnosed with a glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. As coronavirus cases have mounted, he is considered at heightened risk because his chemotherapy affects his immune system. “The world is upside down. Everybody’s a little bit unnerved,” he said. “You know, not to feel special, but I have a little extra icing on my anxiety cake.”
Dr. Barbara McAneny, past president of the American Medical Association and an oncologist-hematologist, has dealt intimately with the added dangers of COVID-19 for cancer patients at her clinic, the New Mexico Cancer Center. “First of all, cancer doesn’t wait for coronavirus,” she said. “So it is essential for oncology clinics to stay functional so we can take care of cancer patients.”
The American Cancer Association estimates that there were 1.7 million new diagnoses of cancer in 2019.
“If our patient ends up in the hospital, they’re at risk for contracting the coronavirus,” McAneny added. “The hospitals are currently at capacity or beyond. It’s our duty to keep our patients healthy and out of the hospital.”
For Krensel, that meant having to put his physical therapy, which he said was incredibly good and effective for him, on hold. “So I was all ready to get back into PT, and then the coronavirus hit and there’s no PT,” Krensel said. “It’s all shut down.”
McAneny explained that telemedicine, the practice of treating patients remotely, has been helpful during this stressful time, although she added it’s not as good as an in-person visit. “When any patient has any version of ‘I’m sick,’ they call up to the office and we see them that day,” McAneny said. “We start out with a telemedicine visit to determine whether or not they have COVID-19. Then what we’re doing is we bring them in and meet them at the front door with masks. We move them instantly to an isolation room.”
It’s important for people to realize too that it’s not just doctors who are on the frontlines of this pandemic, McAneny said. “It isn’t just the doctors in the clinic. My nurses are here, my radiation therapists, my communication coordinators. Everyone is at a higher risk now because we’re in health care,” she said. “The ability of everyone to pull together to work for this crisis is truly awe-inspiring.”
And Krensel says that it’s OK to acknowledge that it’s a scary situation. “What we’re going through, you know, can feel kind of overwhelming. It’s overwhelming. Period. Just let it be.”
For Krensel and his family, their emergency started in December, so they’ve “had a lot of time to learn about life in a crisis.” He sees similarities between the fear of dealing with cancer and the fear created from the coronavirus. “I can tell you what I learned from brain cancer: The only thing that matters in life is our family,” he said. “Let’s get through this together.”
Krensel’s website, fallrisk.NYC, will continue to share updates on his journey.
Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.