Navigating a Cancer Diagnosis and Surgery During COVID-19
One patient’s journey into navigating today’s new healthcare environment
Reviewed by: Ben Dowell (patient) and Alex Haynes, MD, MPH, FACS
Written by: Lauryn Feil
In March 2020, the United States found itself facing a global pandemic as COVID-19 rapidly spread across our nation and other countries around the world. Local, state, and national governments were forced to make decisions regarding widespread shutdowns and stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus. Everyone, including business owners, teachers, parents, children, essentials workers, and more felt, and are still feeling, its effects. The healthcare industry was forced to adapt to new ways of delivering necessary patient care, and patients found themselves navigating a changing system as well as weighing the risk of exposure to receive care during a pandemic.
Ben Dowell lives in Austin, Texas with his wife of 50 years, and during a routine dermatologist appointment in February 2020, his doctor took a biopsy of a suspicious area that wasn’t healing properly on his scalp. A few days later in early March, Ben was in the car with his wife when he got a call from his doctor. “Ben, I have some news, and it’s not good. You have melanoma,” he recalls his dermatologist’s exact words.
His official diagnosis was stage IIIC melanoma of the scalp, which had spread to a nearby lymph node. With a PhD in industrial and organizational psychology and an impressive career focused on improving the performance and success of large corporations, Ben knew that immediate action in the face of a problem like this was necessary. Despite the challenges and uncertainty occurring in a world battling a pandemic, Ben decided moving forward with treatment was his only choice. “I knew it wasn’t going to do me any good to sit and wait or prolong the treatment process. It was something I wanted to get on and get on fast. So, I asked right away, ‘Where do we go from here?’” Ben explains.
Ben was then referred to UT Health Austin surgical oncologist Alex Haynes, MD, MPH, FACS, who serves as the Medical Director for Oncology at UT Health Austin, overseeing operations for UT Health Austin’s Livestrong Cancer Institutes and UT Health Austin’s Surgical Oncology Clinic. Prior to joining UT Health Austin and the Dell Medical School, Dr. Haynes was an associate professor of surgery at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School Division of Surgical Oncology, working as a key member of the melanoma multidisciplinary program. He had previously completed surgical training at the Massachusetts General Hospital as well as a fellowship in complex general surgical oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
By mid-March, however, Texas governor, Greg Abbott, had imposed stay-at-home orders for Austin-Travis County. These orders significantly impacted UT Health Austin as staff and clinicians shifted to working remotely with a focus on COVID-19 testing and prevention in addition to launching telehealth options for patients.
“My first appointment with Dr. Haynes was over telemedicine because, as I recall, this was right when COVID-19 was exploding, so I must have been one of the first patients to go virtual,” says Ben. “Obviously, it wasn’t the most ideal situation, and meeting face-to-face before surgery would have been nice, but it was what it was. Dr. Haynes did a good job of explaining everything, making me feel comfortable, and he’s a very personable doctor, which I really appreciate.”
Naturally, Ben did his own research on Dr. Haynes, reading papers he’s published online to get a better understanding of his skills, expertise, and even more importantly to Ben, the way Dr. Haynes cares for patients. “Because of my background, I’m able to read and understand research papers quite well, and what I saw was that a lot of articles Dr. Haynes has written were on patient care. I read through some of them and thought, ‘Ok, this doctor really cares about his patients, and I like the way he goes about his business’,” says Ben.
On the day of Ben’s scheduled surgery, his wife dropped him off at Dell Seton Medical Center, as she wasn’t allowed to accompany him into the hospital due to COVID-19 safety precautions, and Ben met with Dr. Haynes for the first time in person. Dr. Haynes completed a physical examination and then took Ben in for surgery. A wide excision of the melanoma and a skin graft reconstruction were performed to remove the cancer, and a sentinel lymph node biopsy was performed to identify and remove the affected lymph node. Upon completion of the excision and biopsy, it was confirmed that Ben had stage IIIC melanoma of the scalp, which had spread to the lymph node that was removed.
Ben checked in to the hospital at 8:00 a.m. and was discharged the same day at 6:00 p.m. He recovered wonderfully from surgery, and Dr. Haynes helped coordinate immunotherapy infusions with a medical oncologist at a different clinic Ben visits once a month for his ongoing cancer treatment.
In addition to managing his melanoma treatment, Ben also has normal pressure hydrocephalus, which is an abnormal buildup of cerebral spinal fluid in the brain’s ventricles, or cavities. Coordination between Dr. Haynes and Ben’s neurosurgeon was also necessary to ensure he had fully recovered from his melanoma excision before proceeding with a second surgery, which took place in May and he is recovering well from.
Ben is excited to return to the golf course soon, is looking forward to getting out to see his friends, and is eager to get back to his wood working shop once his doctors clear him for normal activities. He thanks his wonderful wife for making quarantine and his healthcare journey a lot easier and takes joy in spending time with his family and grandchildren while public activity remains limited.
His advice to patients navigating a difficult diagnosis right now is, “First and foremost, do your research. Understand the type of disease you have and the physicians who will be treating you.” Ben says, “Second, if you’re unable to meet someone face-to-face, that’s ok. You can still get a good idea of a doctor’s interpersonal skills through telemedicine. And finally, get comfortable with the fact that some things are just out of your control, letting go can really help eradicate fear and anxiety.”
While it may seem everything these past few months with COVID-19 has been hectic and scary, delivering the highest quality of patient care and treatment options to bring comfort and wellness to the Austin community is still the utmost priority for UT Health Austin providers and care teams.