Apocalypse: Now What? I need surgery. Am I doomed?

Readers ask: Can I get elective surgery? Is my bike commute safe? Should fish tank cleaners come into my home?

hospital exam room

One of the exam rooms in the new COVID-19 popup clinic on the campus of Kittitas Valley Hospital in Ellensburg on March 5, 2020. (Emily McCarty/Crosscut)

Coronavirus has changed our reality for the foreseeable future, prompting questions from you about how to navigate our strange new normal. In this weekly column, we hope to answer them with practical advice, ideas and solutions. Ask your question at the bottom of this story.

Question: I have a respiratory disease and I'm pushing 60. I desperately need hernia surgery. I need major surgery on both shoulders, as well as major surgery on a lot of disks in my spine. Am I doomed? What should I do?

First, I’m so very sorry you’re suffering through this stressful time with additional health problems, and I hope you can weather the pandemic to see your way to good health. My typically black and shriveled heart truly goes out to you. I hope you have a support system you can lean on. 

Second (though it should probably be first), I should disclose some of the professions I do not practice: lawyer, apiarist, notary public, astronaut, cacao sales specialist, recreational watercraft mechanic, phrenologist, busker, Banksy (or am I???), horticulturist, professor of contemporary Eastern European theater at the University of Ohio-Lima (my uncle is), hedge fund manager, or — above all — a doctor or nurse or health professional in any way. So the most important thing for you to do is to consult your primary care provider or medical health professional for advice. 

Thanks to the wonders of technology, telemedicine is available through most providers. If you are uninsured, a number of free and low-cost clinics specializing in serving uninsured and underinsured patients exist across Washington state (call ahead in your location to see if they offer telehealth options). You should be able to receive some legit practical advice and support without increasing your risk of contracting COVID-19.

Without knowing specific details about your conditions, your level of pain or discomfort, and considering that I’m about as qualified to dispense medical health as this guy, I can offer some general updates on elective surgeries in the state. (Most of your ailments would seem to fall into that category, though only your doctor can determine for sure.) According to Gov. Jay Inslee, a number of elective surgeries are now permitted, provided they meet certain requirements determined by clinicians. These can include (but are not limited to) situations where a delay results in more complex future surgeries, continuing or worsening of pain, increased loss of function, or deterioration in physical or mental health. Your doctor can help determine if you qualify. 

All medical professionals and facilities should be operating with appropriate personal protective equipment and procedures to limit the spread of COVID-19, but surgery will require you to venture out of your home. Procedures may be conducted in a hospital, where exposure risk could be higher. Again, they can help you determine whether the risk is worth it. 

But the most important thing to know is, no, you’re not doomed. We are going to get through this together. Best of luck to you and I hope you’re on the mend soon. 

RELATED: A reader asks: Can my band go to the recording studio together if we practice social distancing?

Question: My volunteer work, hosting a weekly radio program on a community radio station in Port Townsend, is considered an essential service. I commute 12 miles by bicycle. I read that you consider motorcycle travel to be too risky. How about bicycle commuting?

As you’ve likely seen on roads near you, stay-at-home orders have led to what appears to be near-daily Critical Mass rides. Hopping on the ol’ Iron Horse (or whatever you bike people call it) for a spin is among the more popular ways to get exercise and keep sad thoughts out of the brain bucket. As long as you follow common-sense guidelines for smart riding, you’re A-OK to ride.

But as with boating accidents and modern industrial society, strapping a carbon-powered motor to two wheels greatly increases chances of injury or death. Motorcycles account for about 3% of road users in Washington state but result in 15% of fatalities. In 2017, 80 people died riding motorcycles; the figure for cyclists was 13 (but that’s on the rise, too). 

Once again, mitigating risk is the rub: Keep yourself out of the hospital to avoid stressing the health system and exposing you or others to the virus. A 12-mile commute on a route you are very familiar with in a relatively low-traffic area like Port Townsend seems a much safer bet than downhill mountain biking or a long-distance motorcycle joyride. Pedal with care, and by all means protect that dulcet radio voice.  

Question: My husband has a 50-gallon saltwater aquarium and it’s time for the fish guy to come clean the tank. I said “no way” until our governor lifts the shelter ban. We are in our 60s and haven’t allowed visitors (not even grandkids) in the house. Am I being too cautious?

Short answer: No, you are not being too cautious. Besides, imagine how the grandkids will feel when you tell them over FaceTime that you love them while some stranger vacuums Nemo’s anemone in the background. Probably not awesome!

It’s possible Fish Guy could maintain social distance and sanitize after himself. But it’s not risk-free, and you’d be inviting someone into a confined area for a length of time to touch the kinds of surfaces where coronavirus can linger. It would be a shame to break your diligent quarantine and expose yourself to risk, however minor.  

How long Dory and Marlin can endure trash piling up on the coral before they decide to hitch a ride to the toilet and flush themselves out of your house depends on the number of fish and size of your aquarium. But now might be a good time for Pop-pop to brush up his cleaning skills himself; pet supply stores qualify as essential services (opt for delivery or curbside pickup). If he’s rustier than a taxi cab in Bikini Bottom, YouTube is awash with helpful tutorials. I’m personally a fan of Mr. Saltwater Tank TV, because he’s a knowledgeable dreamboat who isn’t above incorporating a good dentist chair gag into his schtick. Happy scrubbing!


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez

Ted Alvarez is formerly an editor at Crosscut and KCTS 9 focused on science and the environment.