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SSM Health’s Focus Is On COVID-19, Cancer Care And The Pandemic's 'Downstream Effects'

In the summer of 2018, St. Charles resident Cindy Fricke got the news following her annual mammogram: She had breast cancer. The diagnosis put her on a two-year path involving chemotherapy, radiation and a partial mastectomy. Now she is cancer free, and as she continues to receive care through SSM Health, her outlook is full of gratitude and optimism, even amid a pandemic.

“Because I was basically over the cancer before COVID, anything that I’ve gone back to SSM for has been just my normal checkups that you get as a cancer patient,” Fricke told St. Louis on the Air. “So I’m just like everybody else where you have to check in, get your temperature [checked] and make sure you wear a mask — and no one goes with you … also there have been a couple more virtual actual appointments that I probably never would have been asked to do had we not had COVID.”

Over the course of her cancer journey, Fricke has been struck by the fact that one in eight women get breast cancer. She is also so impressed by the care she’s received that she has started volunteering with the hospital system and giving financially to the SSM Health Foundation-St. Louis.

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SSM Health Foundation - St. Louis
Paul Ross, at left, and Dr. Alex Garza join Wednesday's talk show.

“That’s one of the things that my husband and I have done to give back is donate to SSM ourselves, because we were treated so well,” Fricke said.

For Paul Ross, the foundation’s president, oncology funding remains a top priority, and it’s the focus of the foundation’s virtual gala this Saturday.

“A cancer diagnosis is no small feat to cope with, and the increased risks and challenges of COVID-19 mean that SSM Health oncology patients and their caregivers need our support now more than ever,” the event page reads.

On Wednesday’s show, Ross joined host Sarah Fenske for a look at how SSM Health is working to provide cutting-edge care to cancer patients and others during a particularly challenging year. Also participating in the discussion was SSM’s chief medical officer, Dr. Alex Garza.

Garza, who heads the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, noted that some of the same safety-driven measures that have become commonplace in light of COVID-19 — social distancing, mask wearing and not going out in public as much — were already part of the hospital system’s care routine for immunosuppressed chemotherapy patients, even before the pandemic.

“And the reason for that is to decrease the risk of community-acquired infections,” he said.

“If you go into the hospital and you see patients who are severely immunocompromised, you almost see the same setup that we have with our COVID patients, which is [that] the practitioners have to wear personal protective equipment, make sure the airflow is correct, all of these things. … And so that’s even more precedent here, during this COVID phase, when many patients that are in chemo, living outside of the hospital, are having to confront all of those challenges now with a virus that’s circulating around the community.”

Ross noted that one of the “downstream effects” of the pandemic is that as people have postponed medical appointments out of concern about contracting COVID-19, there’s a different risk that comes with that.

“When cancer is diagnosed later, it can be more aggressive and difficult to cure,” he said.

Garza emphasized that at this point in the ongoing pandemic, returning to regular screenings and other appointments makes good sense.

“Going into a health care facility now is a much different feel than it was pre-COVID. … If you look at the rates of transmission occurring inside a health care facility,” he said, “they are extremely low, so that tells us that we’re doing [precautions] right.”

The conversation also touched on the funding challenges SSM Health and hospitals as a whole have encountered this year, and Garza provided an update on the latest coronavirus-related trends in the region as well.

“We’re in this weird period where we see [the hospital] admissions go up and down,” he said. “We’ve seen a clear decrease in cases from the more urban areas that were the hot spots early on in the pandemic, as well as admissions from those areas. Most of the admissions that we’re seeing now are from the outlying areas.”

Garza said that’s “probably a result of the policy differences” in different areas.

“Even if you look at the urban areas on the other side of the state, in Kansas City, their cases are way down as well, and there are similar policies between the two metropolitan areas.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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