What’s it like to have surgery during COVID-19? One patient shares her story.

Northwestern Medicine
News August 10, 2020
Preparing for surgery can often be nerve-racking, and scheduling one in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic can heighten that anxiety more than usual.

For Geneva resident Shelley Kupetis, 51, delaying her colon resection surgery to treat pain and inflammation tied to diverticulitis was never a second thought. After three years of sporadic attacks tied to the condition, she was eager to find relief from the severe abdominal pain she often experienced.

“My first surgery consult was in August of 2019. At that time, I learned they would need to remove 12 inches of my colon,” Kupetis said. “I didn’t have the surgery then because I needed more time. After the fifth attack in March of 2020, I was honestly just ready to move forward and scheduled my second consult for mid-April."

Kupetis had to wait 6 weeks for COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted before scheduling the surgery, but on May 29 – the same day Illinois moved into phase three – she walked through the doors of Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital alone.

“I would have loved to have had my husband and family visit and support me during my three-day stay, but there was a No-Visitors Policy in effect.” Kupetis said. Although she was nervous when first arriving at the hospital, the staff quickly put her at ease.

“They were caring, supportive and provided a sense of comfort that made my surgery and recovery a better experience than I could have imagined during this pandemic,” she said. “I felt safe”.

Dean Shoener, MD, general surgery at Delnor Hospital said timing was ideal for Kupetis’ surgery as he monitored COVID-related activity in Illinois as well as reactivation plans at the hospital. The hospital implemented a number of precautions, including in-house pre-operative testing of all surgical patients, mandatory masking for both patients and employees, and limited visitors.

“Both the local and state COVID numbers were declining at the time, and we were on the downside of the curve,” Dr. Shoener said. “I felt confident that everything was in place to proceed with surgery with minimal risk of exposure to my patient.”

Delaying the surgery meant potential for more adverse consequences, as a repeat flare of diverticulitis could lead to re-hospitalization, abscess or perforations in the colon. Although Kupetis’ surgery was laparoscopic, more severe damage could have required an open surgery down the road.

“In Illinois, we are currently on the ‘other side of the curve’,” Dr. Shoener said. “Although no one knows, there is speculation that there might be a second spike. Since COVID cases in Illinois are low in comparison to the rest of the country, now might be an optimal time for surgery.”

While Kupetis can relate to being anxious about scheduling a surgery, she does have some advice for other patients contemplating surgery.

“For me, I did a lot of research to educate myself,” she said. “I think people should take advantage of reading the patient education materials to be more prepared. Dr. Shoener gave me a binder that had a lot of great information about the procedure, pre-op and post-op that was extremely helpful. I read through all of it.”

Kupetis kept detailed records of her symptoms, medications and CT Scans over the years and recommends others do the same. Bringing a family member or friend to the consult can also be helpful.

“I asked a lot of questions, took notes, listed the pros and the cons of the procedure, and discussed my options with my family,” she said. “I believe if you have faith and trust your instincts, in the end you will make the best decision for you.”

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