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As elective surgeries resume, out-of-state patients flock to Illinois doctors

“They planned everything around having surgery done and finally alleviating their pain, finally restoring their function. And then for obviously good reasons, we canceled their surgery or postponed their surgery. And it’s just been heartbreaking for them,” said Dr. Richard Berger of Rush Hospital.

Dr. Richard Berger performs knee surgery at Rush Hospital.
Provided

Robin Treider and her husband set out Tuesday on a 10-hour drive from their home in Pennsylvania to Oak Brook, where she was set to undergo a long overdue knee replacement surgery just two days after Illinois hospitals resumed elective procedures.

Though Treider said she wasn’t concerned about stepping into a hospital in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it still felt at times like she was riding an “emotional roller coaster.”

“It’s just the normal fears that can pop into your mind of the things that could go wrong,” she said. “And you quickly try to push them away, but they come back.”

Treider is just one of the patients traveling to Illinois to see Dr. Richard Berger of Rush Hospital, one of the first orthopedic surgeons in the Chicago area. While Pennsylvania restarted elective surgeries April 27, Treider said she was willing to wait for Illinois to lift its restrictions because Berger was highly recommended by a friend and she had already been in line for surgery with him.

After postponing surgeries for roughly two months when the coronavirus took hold, Berger said his schedule is now jam-packed with patients eager to go under the knife.

“They planned everything around having surgery done and finally alleviating their pain, finally restoring their function. And then for obviously good reasons, we canceled their surgery or postponed their surgery. And it’s just been heartbreaking for them,” said Berger, who estimated that roughly half of his patients come from outside Illinois.

When elective surgeries resumed Monday in Illinois, hospitals had new safeguards in place to protect patients and medical staff from the deadly virus.

At Rush Oak Brook, where Treider is undergoing surgery, those new measures include strict social distancing guidelines, screening and temperature checks and new requirements for more staff members to wear both masks and gloves. In addition, family members can no longer wait inside the hospital and patients must be tested for COVID-19 ahead of their surgery.

But Berger noted that health care workers have long been taken precautions to prevent the spread of disease. For example, he said his team wears “hermetically-sealed space suits” and performs operations in rooms that are pumped with sterile air that helps filter out “any pathogens, any bacteria [and] any virus.

“We assume every patient has something that we don’t want to get,” he said. “And we assume that no patient wants to get anything that we get.”

As surgeons like Berger have gotten back to work, the Illinois Department of Public Health has made it clear that elective surgeries could again be suspended in the case of a “rapid resurgence or a second wave of COVID-19” or a “decrease in statewide hospital COVID-19 testing levels.”

In retrospect, Berger said, it was unnecessary to shut down elective procedures, which are a vital source of revenue for hospitals. Because everyone is screened at his hospital, Berger claimed that having a joint replacement surgery is currently safer than going to a grocery store or a gas station.

“We were thinking this was going to be Armageddon,” he said. “We thought the hospital would be 100% filled and overspilled. McCormick Place made a makeshift hospital that was going to be filled. Well, it turned out there was no patients that ever went there. Our hospital wasn’t filled. No other hospital was filled.

“Now thank God, of course, but we were wrong.”

Meanwhile, as Treider prepared for her operation on Wednesday morning, her concerns about the procedure have been allayed by her confidence in Berger. An avid tennis player, Treider can’t wait to get the surgery done so she can get back on the court this summer.

“I’m going to be walking around in happy tears,” she said.