On the Front Lines with Cancer and COVID-19

While the rest of the world is learning how to work from home, I am focusing on providing outstanding care for my patients in a whole new way.  Of course, I am continuing to adhere to the recommended guidelines for advanced safety by enhancing hand hygiene, surface decontamination practices and avoiding contaminating my workspace.  More importantly, my focus over the past few weeks has been on providing emotional support for my patients.  As a Radiation Therapist, it has always been a part of my job to help reduce patient’s anxiety, but now that we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic there is another level of anxiety that we are experiencing.  Except we weren’t trained for this.  How do I help calm my patient’s anxiety when I am anxious about the same thing?  We used to have all the answers to our patients’ questions…now we don’t.  

We have all heard in the news about the elderly being in nursing homes without any visitors and the effects that it is having and what we can do to help by writing letters and sending them, etc.  I am now seeing the same effects on my inpatients.  As the hospital is enforcing strict visitation policies, I have noticed it has been causing higher than normal stress levels for those patients. 

While these restrictions are important for the safety of our patients and staff, we have to find a way to help.  Some of my patients are showing signs of depression due to the lack of visitation by their friends and family.  As if our patients aren’t already going through enough emotionally by trying to cope with their cancer diagnosis and treatment, now they are trying to cope without the immediate support of their loved ones. 

Everything we have been taught as Radiation Therapists said to encourage patients to seek good support systems at home and lean on them for help.  Now we need to become that support system, we need to encourage patients not to give up and to keep fighting and we need to encourage them to keep coming for their treatments. We need to take the time to talk to them and connect with them on a personal level. Perhaps we encourage alternate ways of communicating with their friends and family or encouraging patients to build “virtual” relationships with other patients in similar situations.  I challenge us as healthcare workers during this uncertain time to do something special to keep our patients’ spirits up.  We have to think outside of the box, we have to find new techniques and ways to ease their anxieties.  The same goes for the hundreds of outpatients that we continue to treat on a daily basis.  We have to try harder now than ever to offer our support… we are all in this together.

Courtney is a Radiation Therapist at Penn Medicine in the Department of Radiation Oncology.  She completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Radiation Therapy from Indiana University, and received her Master’s Degree in Public Health with concentrations in Health Management and Policy and Health Education and Promotion from Benedictine University.  She has fourteen years of experience in radiation therapy, which includes expertise in proton therapy and pediatrics.  Courtney has worked with OncoLink since 2014, but joined part-time in 2020 as a Global Education Coordinator and is currently developing virtual reality training modules that have been used to train radiation therapists both domestically and internationally.

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