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Elective surgeries postponed because of COVID bring heartache to patients, hospital workers

A woman who'd worked in the medical field more than two decades quit her job after having to call numerous patients about elective surgeries placed on hold.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Hundred to thousands of elective surgeries are being postponed across Oregon and southwest Washington, and with that comes lots of heartbreaking phone calls to patients. 

The term "elective surgery" can be misleading to some, explained Dr. Megan Frost, a surgeon at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass. 

“We consider an elective case something that we see in the office and is scheduled. But that’s not just including a hip replacement or hernia repair," Dr. Frost said. "That’s including patients that have cancer. It's including patients that are at risk of stroke, at risk of heart attack, at risk of losing a limb."

All over the state, surgeries for patients with urgent conditions are being postponed, Frost said, because there isn't enough hospital space or staff to take care of them. Hospitals are filled up with mostly unvaccinated COVID patients.

RELATED: Elective surgeries postponed in Oregon because hospitals are filled with COVID patients

And then people like Kristin Eckhardt have to break the bad news to those patients awaiting so-called elective surgeries. 

“We had a lot of people that needed surgery," Eckhardt said. "So I was the only one and I’d call them and get them all scheduled and so forth. Get them on the books. Get all their pre-ops, post-ops, everything else."

Eckhardt worked in the medical field for 25 years, mostly in the Hillsboro area. As the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up, she became the bearer of bad news.

“So then my job was to call these people I’d already made a rapport with and tell them, gosh I’m really sorry but we can’t do your surgery,” she said. 

Preparing for surgery is not a small task, and hearing that your surgery is canceled a week or two before its scheduled date is an awful experience. 

“It was a really crappy position to be in to call these people. You’re like, hey guess what Susie Q? We have to postpone your surgery," Eckhardt said. "And they’re like, ‘but I have people coming in, I have appointments made, I have child care, I have transportation. And you’re like, I am really sorry. And there was no amount of apology that would fix it.”

On busy days, she'd call 10 people or more. And it went on day after day, slowly taking a toll.

RELATED: 'The pain is honestly worse than the hunger': Oregon's overwhelmed hospitals delaying surgeries for others

“Horrible,” she said, pausing to wipe away a tear. "These people were looking so forward to being fixed. To feeling better. To getting normal back in their life and to take that away was — it sucked. It was heart wrenching. You felt like a bad guy and you had no control."

“It was literally probably one of the worst feelings ever!” she added. 

Even though it was out of her control, Eckhardt said she worried about those patients and their health, while she was at work and later when she was at home. 

Eventually it became too much.

She quit her job in late July and is now working with children with disabilities.

Dr. Frost, the surgeon in Grants Pass, has had to call her own patients whose surgeries were canceled, and she too worries about them. She's not aware of anyone who has died because they could not get an elective surgery, but she fears it will be just a matter of time.

“The problem is that cancer at some point starts to spread. And those patients aren’t going to die in the next few weeks. It’s that that’s gonna shorten somebody’s lifespan by a potential couple of decades because they die in the next five years, when if we could have operated on them today you could have prevented that from happening. And they would have lived 20 more years," she said. 

Its one more reason health care leaders urge everyone eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Have a comment or story for reporter Pat Dooris? Email him at pdooris@kgw.com

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