Patients with advanced cancer and heart disease are among those who have had to wait for surgeries and other procedures as critically ill, unvaccinated COVID patients strain the medical system.



It's a bad time to get sick in Oregon. That is the message from some doctors as hospitals that are filled with COVID patients bump patients with other medical conditions. Jefferson Public Radio's Erik Neumann has more.

ERIK NEUMANN, BYLINE: Charlie Callagan sits outside on his deck in the smoky summer air in the small town of Merlin in southwest Oregon. Though he looks perfectly healthy, 72-year-old Callagan has multiple myeloma, basically a blood cancer of the bone marrow.

CHARLIE CALLAGAN: So it affects the immune system. It affects the bones. I had a PET scan that described my bones as looking kind of Swiss cheese-like.

NEUMANN: Callagan is a retired national park ranger. Fifty years ago, he served in Vietnam, and this spring doctors found his cancer. They're assuming he got it from exposure to Agent Orange during the war.

CALLAGAN: There's maps online that show what were the hot spots in Vietnam for the spraying of Agent Orange. And it turns out the air base I was in was surrounded by it. They sprayed all over it.

NEUMANN: A few weeks ago, he was driving to Oregon Health and Science University in Portland to get a bone marrow transplant. On the way, he got a call from his doctor.

CALLAGAN: They're like, we were told this morning we have to cancel the surgeries we had planned.

NEUMANN: Cancelled because the hospital was full. That's the story at many hospitals in Oregon, where they've been flooded with COVID-19 patients. Dr. Mujahid Rizvi leads the oncology clinic handling Callagan's care. He says delays can have consequences.

MUJAHID RIZVI: With cancer treatment, sometimes there's a window of opportunity where you can go in and potentially cure the patient. And if you wait too long, the cancer can spread.

NEUMANN: And it's not just cancer care. Dr. Kent Dauterman is a cardiologist in southern Oregon.

KENT DAUTERMAN: I've seen patients get ready to have their open heart surgery that day. I've seen patients have brain tumor or someone with lung cancer, and their procedures are cancelled that day, and they have to come back another day.

NEUMANN: The day we talked, Dauterman said at his local hospital, 28 patients were waiting for open heart surgery, and 24 needed pacemakers. He says during normal times, there wouldn't be any wait.

DAUTERMAN: I don't want to be dramatic. It's just - there is plenty of other things killing Oregonians before this.

NEUMANN: Right now the vast majority of patients in Oregon hospitals with COVID are unvaccinated. But even in non-pandemic times, there's not a lot of extra room in Oregon's health care system. Becky Hultberg is the CEO of the state's hospital association.

BECKY HULTBERG: If you look at the number of hospital beds per capita, Oregon has 1.7 hospital beds per thousand population. That's the lowest in the country.

NEUMANN: A new study on curtailing procedures looked back at how the VA hospitals did during the first pandemic wave. It found that the veterans health system was able to reduce elective treatments by 91%, and it was effective in that ICU beds were freed up to care for COVID patients. But the study didn't look at the consequences for the patients who had to wait. Dr. Brajesh Lal is the lead author.

BRAJESH LAL: We clearly, even in hindsight, made the right decision of curtailing elective surgery. But we as a society have not really emphatically asked the question at what price in the long term.

NEUMANN: He says we won't know that without more long-term research. Back on his deck in Oregon, Charlie Callagan says he doesn't consider his bone marrow transplant as urgent as what some people are facing right now.

CALLAGAN: There are so many other people that are being affected. People are dying waiting for a hospital bed, and that just angers me. You know, it's hard to stay quiet now.

NEUMANN: He says it's hard to stay sympathetic for the COVID patients filling up hospitals when a simple vaccine could have prevented most of it.

For NPR news, I'm Erik Neumann in Merlin, Ore.

CHANG: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with Jefferson Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS SONG, "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.