HACKENSACK, N.J. — As the world continues to be in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, local hospitals — which county officials have dubbed “war zones” with Intensive Care Units filled to capacity with infected individuals — are currently the most feared place among people concerned for their own health and safety. Even cancer patients, whose health is contingent upon lifesaving treatment, are avoiding them given the threat that exposure to the virus can pose on their lives, as their weakened immune systems can make them unable to fight it off. But the fear of contracting coronavirus shouldn’t be a reason to avoid medical centers, doctors warn.

“It took the world by storm, and then we had to adjust very quickly because cancer patients are even more at risk of catching Covid,” explained Dr. Andre Goy, Chairman and Director of the John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and Chief of the Division of Lymphoma, by phone. “We have strict measures to screen patients the night before they come in and the morning of.”

Goy said the Prospect Avenue hospital sees between 500 and 600 cancer patients per day and that 179 out of roughly 900 who were tested for the virus were presumptive-positive. Exposure to the virus is not particularly a death sentence for cancer patients. However, Goy noted that since the mortality rate is highest among cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy, which can lower the patient’s T-cell count, the hospital takes several safety precautions among this vulnerable population. 

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Apart from designating a separate wing of the medical center to care for them, cancer patients are provided with personal protective equipment which include surgical masks and gloves and encouraged to practice frequent hand washing and keeping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-required six feet from fellow patients. A thorough sanitization is also conducted in hospital rooms of infected patients from a robot, which resembles a vacuum cleaner. Additionally, hospital officials have implemented a no-visitor policy to keep as many people out of the facility as possible. In the past month, Goy said there have been fewer admissions in the ICU and that many hospital units that were once shuttered when virus cases were at its apex, are beginning to reopen.  

On the treatment end, while a vaccine is not expected until year’s end or early 2021, Goy said there have been advancements in treatment of the virus. An experimental treatment called convalescent plasma therapy uses the blood of recovered Covid-19 patients containing high levels to infuse in patients who have either severe cases of the virus, or to neutralize its progression in people with milder cases in order to prevent them from becoming sicker and experiencing complications. The plasma boosts the patient’s ability to fight the virus, according to the Mayo Clinic.   

While the coronavirus pandemic rages on, Ed Christenson, a 57-year-old volunteer firefighter and father of two from Cedar Grove, has been receiving cancer treatment at the John Theurer Cancer Center at HUMC since his diagnosis with mantle cell lymphoma — a cancer of the white blood cells and a rare type of non-Hodgkin’s disease — in January 2019. The cancer began with a lump in his throat, has been treated by Dr. Goy ever since. This past winter, Christenson had been on a three-month hiatus from his cancer treatment before he returned to the hospital in March — right around the time the coronavirus was dubbed a pandemic by the World Health Organization and hospitals worldwide began to experience the devastating surge of infected patients that only got worse as time went on.  

“I was a bit apprehensive, but they quickly put me at ease with what they were doing,” said Christenson. “They’re amazing people, the nurses and doctors, and I’m very grateful to have them taking care of me. I’m lucky.”

Christenson goes to the cancer center for weekly four-hour immunotherapy treatments administered intravenously. Despite the hospital’s no-visitors policy which was implemented to curb the spread of the potentially deadly virus, Christenson relies on his cherished playlist of his favorite blues and rock ’n’ roll artists for moral support.

While he is no longer an active firefighter, Christenson takes pride in his altered role, which is driving his men to duty and encourages anyone going through a struggle to do the same in their own life. He has about five months left of treatment, and by that time, a vaccine for the coronavirus is slated to become available. If not by year’s end, latest early 2021. A dual reason to celebrate.

While we can’t control the cards we’re dealt in life, it’s about how you play your hand that counts. And Christenson is living breathing proof.  

“My father-in-law used to say, ‘What’s the alternative, Ed?’ I live in today, in the moment, and I don’t look back,” he said. “Just keep moving forward.”