Three weeks ago, Robert Cruickshank went to the ER in Seattle with terrible abdominal pain. The diagnosis? Gallstones. The hospital gave him strong painkillers and urged him to come back again—and soon—to have his gallbladder removed. “It doesn’t have to happen tonight,” he recalls the doctors saying, “but get it scheduled as soon as possible.” No one yet knew that the coronavirus was already spreading undetected through the city. Cruickshank briefly wondered if this virus in the news would affect things when scheduling the surgery for yesterday, but his doctor didn’t seem worried.
By this past Friday, everything had changed. The doctor’s office called to say that his gallbladder-removal surgery would be postponed indefinitely.
All over the country, patients are finding their nonemergency surgical appointments canceled as hospitals prepare for a spike in coronavirus cases. Surgeries for early-stage cancer, joint replacements, epilepsy, and cataracts are all getting pushed back—to ration much-needed personal protective equipment, keep hospital beds open, and to shield patients from the virus. On Friday, the American College of Surgeons recommended that hospitals reschedule elective surgeries as needed. Hospitals in outbreak hot spots such as Seattle, New York, and Boston were the first to act, but more are likely to follow suit.