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Jefferson Health

Home of Sidney Kimmel Medical College

Nothing to Fear:
Cancer Surgery During COVID-19

After successful thyroid cancer surgery, Arnaldo Santos encourages patients requiring surgery to have it done and avoid delaying care.

With thyroid cancer surgery scheduled for Good Friday, April 10, Arnaldo Santos, 51, was home, enjoying time with his family, when he received a call from his surgeon, Dr. David Cognetti. With the COVID-19 pandemic worsening by the day, the decision had been made to postpone his surgery to May.

“He was being cautious, he wanted to make sure that his patients didn’t get the coronavirus,” Arnaldo says. “That was smart.”

While Dr. Cognetti assured Arnaldo that his overall prognosis was excellent, with minimal significant risk for disease progression, Arnaldo’s anxiety level, understandably, became somewhat heightened with the news. “The bottom line is, you can tell somebody they’re going to do great, but when they hear the word ‘cancer,’” Dr. Cognetti says. “That’s going to wear on their mind.”

Many of Dr. Cognetti’s patients whose surgery was rescheduled due to the coronavirus received a phone call from him from time to time, just to keep in touch and be reassured that everything would be fine. “I think that communication is hugely important,” Dr. Cognetti says.

“I’ve never had that experience,” Arnaldo says, “where a doctor will call me at, say, 9 o’clock at night just to find out how I was doing.”

Arnaldo with his wife Maribel

Arnaldo with his wife Maribel.

The fact that his family, wife Maribel, daughters Lynn, 31, and Anjelica, 23, and son, Arnaldo, Jr., 22, were all home isolating together made the delay bearable, if not downright enjoyable. They played board games, went for walks near their home in rural Hopewell Township in Cumberland County, NJ, and enjoyed meals prepared by Maribel, who Arnaldo described as a home chef. “I gained some weight with all that good food,” he says with a laugh. “I think we all did.”

Day of Surgery

When his rescheduled surgery date, May 8, finally arrived, his family drove him to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Center City, gave him hugs, dropped him at the door and drove off, as visitors have been cautiously regulated during the pandemic.

From the minute he walked into the reception area, Arnaldo recalls feeling very safe – despite the uncertainty swirling around the COVID-19 pandemic. “I could smell the alcohol and just how clean everything was. That was very important to me,” he says, adding that hospital staff was practicing strict social distancing measures. “In the waiting area, when someone was called back, a member of the staff was there right away to sanitize the chair,” he recalls. “It made me feel very comfortable and secure.” [Click here for more information about safety precautions at Jefferson Health.]

As Dr. Cognetti explains, from a surgical standpoint, standard precautions, even before the pandemic, are extremely strict. With the coronavirus, precautions have been stepped up even further.

“Surgery, at baseline, is one of the safest places for patients in medicine because of how rigid things are in terms of protecting against the transmission of infectious disease,” Dr. Cognetti says. Because of the pandemic, additional precautions include pre-op COVID testing for all patients and the escalation of personal protective equipment (PPE) to include N95 masks, combined with face shields, for staff. “Protecting our staff is important, not only for the sake of our staff but also because it protects the next patient,” Dr. Cognetti notes.

Arnaldo’s surgery went extremely well, to the point where Dr. Cognetti released him later that same day. “By the time my wife got home from dropping me off, she had to turn around to come back and get me,” Arnaldo jokes. “Dr. Cognetti thought it was better to send me home than stay in the hospital because of the pandemic.”

Dr. Cognetti says patients should know that surgeries, despite the ongoing pandemic, are extremely safe. “It’s important that the message of safe surgery be out there because what’s happened now, which could potentially hurt patients, is that much of the news has made people scared to come into the hospital or to come in and get surgery. In many cases, that could end up hurting the patient instead of helping them.”

Recovery At Home

While recovering at home, Arnaldo has returned to his duties – albeit from home – as business manager for the Parish of the Holy Cross in Bridgeton, NJ, where he oversees operations for five churches, a school and a number of cemeteries throughout the parish. An ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, his faith has played an important role throughout his diagnosis, surgery and recovery. Coincidently, he is the third member of the same deacon class to be treated by Dr. Cognetti for thyroid cancer. “When I first met with Dr. Cognetti, I told him: ‘you owe me the deacon discount,’” he quips.

All joking aside, the successful surgery is allowing an extraordinary man to return not only to his family but to a calling to help others. A retired police detective, he’s witnessed more than many in his 51 years, starting at age 9 when he fled with his mother and younger brother from an abusive father in Puerto Rico. He grew up in government-assisted housing in Bridgeton and, at age 19, began a 25-year career in law enforcement.

As a police detective, he was recognized by the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey as an expert witness on East Coast Street Gangs. He spent his years as a police detective on the front lines of gang warfare. His experiences are captured in his book, “Street Gangs and God – The Battle in the Streets,” published in 2016. He describes the book as part memoir and part spiritual encouragement for parents and young people struggling to find purpose in their lives.

As a deacon, he continues to guide parents and their children to do good things with their lives. As a patient, he encourages anyone who has been told they’ll require surgery to go through with it.

“Do not fear and do not be afraid,” he says.

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COVID-19, Patient Perspectives