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04/16/20
3 East oncology team

Facing cancer is difficult – and during the COVID-19 crisis, those difficulties become even more complex. But the Richard A. Henson Cancer Institute team and the staff of the inpatient oncology 3 East unit are going the extra mile to ensure that these vulnerable patients and their families are cared for both emotionally and physicially. 

At the Richard A. Henson Cancer Institute in Salisbury and Ocean Pines, patients still need to come in for chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatments. It has been very difficult for patients and family members who are afraid to leave their homes to come to the centers to get cancer treatments,” said oncology social worker Lisa Barnes. “Since the no visitors policy started, our doctors must deliver diagnoses to patients without their loved one present; nurses educate people about their therapies for cancer; test results are given to patients who are not accompanied by their families or a support person. 

Creative solutions are being deployed to help. 

In our efforts to help ease this stress in patients’ and caregivers’ lives, doctors and nurses are Facetiming or using telemed options with loved ones,” Barnes said. “Medical staff also do conference calls with caregivers while they sit in our parking lot waiting for their loved one. Nurses have offered to go the caregiver’s car, maintaining social distancing and wearing masks, to answer questions or explain instructions.” 

All these measures make a difference, Barnes says. 

When the no visitors policy was put into place, an elderly couple came to the center to learn about chemotherapy treatments. The wife was so upset she started crying because she could not attend the visit with her husband. Several team members worked to help her,” Barnes said. “Staff took her outside and sat on a bench to listen as she expressed her worry about her husband and her fear of being outside of her house. They explained the reason we could not let her come in the center, and a medical oncology nurse took time to teach her and her husband how to use Facetime so they could hear the information together. It was very touching to see the couple bent over their phone listening and asking questions. 

On the inpatient oncology unit, 3 East, clinical manager Lori Somers said, “COVID-19 has us all scared, the young, the old, the healthy, and the sick… imagine being a cancer patient who is undergoing treatment that is intended to save your life yet puts you at risk for harm from even the common cold. Imagine being that same cancer patient that is admitted to the hospital for 5 days to receive your chemotherapy, knowing that you are entering a building filled with those who are ill, knowing that there are COVID-19 patients somewhere in this hospital, and praying that you will be safe and protected.  

Now imagine being a cancer patient who is nearing the end the battle, knowing that time is short, and having to make decisions about palliative and hospice care, while their loved one listens in over the phone. Our oncology patients thrive on the love and support from their families and friends and are now finding themselves alone within the walls of our organization.” 

The compassionate employees of this floor are used to helping patients through tough times, and have stepped up even more in response to the COVID-19 restrictions.  

The nurses and ancillary staff on 3 East are working hard to educate patients on how we are keeping them safe during their stay, making efforts to touch base frequently with family to provide updates and calm fears, while offering the compassionate and loving care that is always needed,” Somers said.

Oncology nursing is the science of care with hopeful hands that are touching spirits and lifting lives.

Special thanks to our palliative care team and John Tyler of Pastoral Care who are navigating this difficult time with grace, offering guidance and support to our patients and staff. Many thanks to all the staff at PRMC who are providing care to the COVID patients and allowing us to keep our vulnerable patients safe. We are all in this together.”  

Sharing support

It comes as no surprise that the employees whose compassion led them to caring for cancer patients are exceptionally good at emotional support during these difficult times. 

“Recently I observed one of the radiation therapists pushing a patient in a wheelchair,” Barnes said. “The patient had several physical handicaps as well as developmental delays. The caregiver had to remain outside.  The therapist was talking gently to the patient, patting her shoulder softly and wheeling her slowly to the exit. She was in a strange place with strange people having radiation therapy and she did well because the staff member treated her like a family member. 

“In chemotherapy, the nurses and medical assistants are reassuring patients, especially first-time chemotherapy patients, while giving their treatments. They are making sure people eat when they are here and sitting down with them when they are anxious. Often nurses check on each other’s patients when passing by them. Their words and mannerisms are gentle and kind. The staff seem to realize how scared people are and their contact with the patient may be the only time they see other people for several days while quarantined,” Barnes continued. 

Barnes said she has seen fears rise along with the number of COVID-19 patients. “During the first two weeks of the quarantine, patients didn’t seem to be affected by the events around them, but last week patients started expressing their fears about the virus. A young patient with a decreased immune system talked with a social worker about her fear of getting COVID-19 and dying from the virus, as well as giving the virus to her husband and toddler.  She knew her immune system was compromised from chemotherapy. A social worker sat with her touching her leg through blankets to provide a comforting touch and listened to her fears. 

Another social worker sat with a depressed elderly patient receiving treatment and tried to get her talk. When the social worker asked how she was doing with the quarantine the patient started sharing how lonely she was, and they came up with a plan to help with decrease the loneliness.  

Barnes and team have been working extra hard to help meet the social needs of patients at this time. “It is very difficult to find help for patients needing transportation to get to treatments or provide other concrete services,” she said. “Agencies are running out of money, others are not taking new patients or helping patients get to treatment. Everyone is using a lot of creativity to help patients get the services they need. 

But there’s hope, she says. “While all this chaos continues around us there are positive things happening in the cancer centers. Everyone is comforting, listening and trying to help patients, as well as each other. The cancer centers have always been blessed with great staff, but now there is a strong ‘we are family’ vibe. This feeling not only exists with the staff but also with patients. 

The cancer institute is accepting donations of cloth masks for its patients - call Volunteer Services at 410-543-7202 to coordinate delivery.