While it seems the world is preoccupied with the COVID-19 pandemic, doctors, nurses, and team members at the JPS Oncology and Infusion Center still have a job to do.
Time is of the essence, and their work waits for nothing. Patients who can’t wait for the virus to be defeated before they fight back against cancer in their bodies can still count on getting the care they need, according to Dr. Bassam Ghabach, Medical Director of the Oncology and Infusion Center.
“We’re reviewing every patient’s case and, if someone’s treatment is non-essential, we can postpone it,” Ghabach said. “But, for most people, that’s not possible. The infusion room is as busy as ever. We may be doing things a little bit differently, but we’re making sure people get the care they need.”
While the number of patients treated hasn’t changed, Ghabach said the way they are treated has. Some infusion chairs have been moved out of the infusion room into other spaces – some of them offices vacated by employees sent to work from home, others in break rooms and meeting rooms – to create social distancing buffers. Chemotherapy patients have weakened immune systems that make them vulnerable to COVID-19, so, to limit the number of times they have to leave the house, all their appointments and treatments are scheduled back-to-back instead of scattered across the month. To keep patients from having to go to the grocery store, Ghabach said the Oncology and Infusion Center has even teamed with a food bank to put together some boxes of non-perishable food to send home with people.
“Whenever possible, we’re doing a lot of telehealth meetings as opposed to face-to-face visits,” according to Ghabach. “About 70 percent of our visits are via telehealth. Things are working differently than usual. But we’re not delaying any referrals that are coming to us. At the very least, we are calling the stable patients to reassure them that we’re working on their case and they’re not being delayed or forgotten. We want all of our patients to know that we will continue to be here for them.”
Wendy Reimers, a patient who was at the Oncology and Infusion Center Wednesday for chemotherapy, said her delicate condition has required her to be in quarantine since September. So, she’s very grateful to see all the precautions JPS is taking to protect her – and that she can still get her treatments despite the fact that the outside world seems to be shut down by the pandemic.
“I love these people,” Reimers said. “I really do. Every one of them are wonderful. They’re all so caring. These nurses have a special something that I know I don’t have. I actually look forward to coming here for chemotherapy. Not only because it’s the only time I get out of the house, but everyone here is so nice to me.”
The extra care the Oncology and Infusion team provides to patients happens beyond the infusion room, even beyond the walls of JPS. Ghabach said cancer care providers isolate themselves from their family members when they’re at home to try to make sure they’re not exposed to COVID-19. At work, team members aren’t able to make individual food orders from area restaurants as they normally would for lunch. They need to keep frontline screeners from having contact with any more people than necessary, which includes delivery drivers. With their break rooms off limits because of social distancing, on most days they have no way to eat a hot meal.
“It’s difficult sometimes,” Ghabach said. “But these are the things we have to do right now to keep our patients safe.”
In recent days, a local business purchased meals from an area restaurant for Oncology and Infusion Center team members, prearranging with JPS Volunteer Services to give the workers a rare treat while supporting another local business. The cancer team has also been treated to a meal donated by a local church and another from Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks.
Velma Rangel, Administrative Assistant at the Oncology and Infusion Center, said team members were very touched by the gestures.
“It’s so nice to know that people appreciate what we’re doing and that we’re here for them,” Rangel said. “The team here has helped so many people over the years, so I don’t know if the people who donated had a family member or friend who we helped with cancer, or if it’s just their way of saying they’re glad we’re here. But we’re glad to be remembered and to be a part of this community.”
Ghabach said Oncology and Infusion team members are committed to continuing to find ways to take care of cancer patients through the pandemic and beyond.
“Although things are a little bit different now, we’re able to do everything we need to do,” Ghabach said. “The only thing that is a problem is when we have to deliver news to patients about what they’re facing. We want to be in the room with the patient to look them in the eye and hold their hand. Our patients are important to us, so it’s hard to have those conversations over the phone.”