Coronavirus impact: Surgery delays tough on patients, doctors in San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- One month ago, hospitals in San Francisco were ordered to stop elective surgeries to prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases. Nearly two thousand patients at just one hospital, UCSF, were impacted, creating delays and anxiety for them and their families.

It is never easy to be sick and to be scheduled for surgery. A delay can cause symptoms to get worse or pain to intensify. Surgeons are having to make tough calls about who goes to the top or the bottom of the priority list.

"It started with blurry vision on the right side of my face and then numbing and tingling," said Rosemary Pathy-McKinney.

A second grade teacher in San Jose, she knew something was seriously wrong. When an MRI showed she had two brain tumors, she was scheduled for surgery the next morning. Then came yet another shock.

"When I came out of the MRI," she said, "I was told that they stopped all elective surgeries at UCSF."

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San Francisco public health had ordered a halt to all elective surgery, starting the next day, so hospitals could prepare for a surge in COVID-19 patients. Husband Rick McKinney wanted to think this had to be a joke.

"Well, she's having brain surgery. This is not elective. Nobody elects to have brain surgery, right?" he said.

The mother of two teenage daughters, Sabrina and Sarah, became one of 1900 surgeries postponed at UCSF. Surgeons, including hers, had to classify cases in tiers.

"Each department now is tasked with the process of figuring out who's #1, #2, #3, #4, and it's really hard to do," said UCSF neurosurgeon Philip Theodosopoulos.

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Rosemary was classified in Tier 2, meaning her procedure was not imminently life threatening, but it was clearly not cosmetic. The pain intensified, as did her anxiety.

"Every day my symptoms are getting worse," she noted. "It's the unknown. Is this going to happen? When's it going to happen?"

The McKinney family understood the gravity of COVID-19 cases. The postponement of her surgery and the 1900 others allowed UCSF to free up 243 patient beds and nearly 100 intensive care beds. It also led to delicate discussions with patients and their families.

"About two-thirds of them are urgent or emergency surgeries if you or your loved one had to have, you'd want to have it tomorrow if you could."

Rosemary endured a wait of over three weeks. Her surgery was performed Monday, and she's in recovery. It's an example of the tough decisions doctors and hospitals are making.

"We have a mission. We are not here just to treat COVID. We're here to make everyone safe no matter what they have," said Dr. Theodosopoulos.

He estimates it could take six months to clear up the backlog of 1900 surgeries.

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