Interview with Maine Oncologist Dr. G. Richard Polkinghorn

With the emergence of the novel coronavirus, we have learned much about the selfless and valiant efforts of frontline medical professionals in the fields of emergency medicine and primary care. What we have discussed less, however, are the ways in which physicians in other fields have been affected by the disease. I spoke with my father, Dr. G. Richard Polkinghorn, who is the Director of Medical Oncology at Maine General Hospital about how COVID-19 has affected his work treating cancer patients. 

Madeline Polkinghorn (MP:): How long have you been practicing medicine?

Richard Polkinghorn (GRP): When you say that, most people mean how long have you been in practice, or private practice, or whatever. If you mean how long have I been in medicine. I’ve been in medicine, in terms of starting medical school, for forty years. I started medical school in 1980. So since 1980, I have done nothing professionally but medicine.

MP: How has COVID-19 affected you as a physician?

GRP: In terms of a practice, it’s huge. For one thing, we have a number of patients who no longer come in if they don’t have to, so we’ve had a lot of cancellations – putting off routine visits, say if we see a patient every three months, to check four months for a blood problem or a cancer that’s in remission, those are being pushed out. Then we have patients who are in treatment that we’re doing phone visits with, and talking about our scans. But many patients still need to come into the hospital and get therapy [like chemotherapy or radiation]. But it has dramatically affected hospitalizations, and we don’t want people coming into the hospital for a scan that they can maybe get in a month or so. 

MP: How do you feel about coming into work every day?

GRP: I am not afraid… Wearing the mask and gloves and practicing social distancing has helped me get over feeling unsettled. Every patient that comes in is screened. Their family members, unless absolutely needed, are not allowed to come in. And any family member that does have to come in is also screened. We now have a tent outside the emergency room for anyone who has symptoms of the coronavirus. There’s two tents for coronavirus, so we can keep them out of the emergency room as much as possible, where they might spread it.

MP: Do you think this has changed the way medicine will be practiced forever?

GRP: I think it’s going to change the awareness in communities and amongst doctors about the pandemic. But I do think the beauty of science is that eventually a vaccine will be developed, maybe a better treatment. It’s a real time disease. 

MP: How has the virus affected fields of medicine outside of intensive care and infectious disease? 

GRP: To my knowledge, most cancer centers have remained open. But other specialties of medical care have been curtailed. If you’re in primary care medicine, I think it’s a lot of: ‘What’s your problem?’ ‘I have chest pain.’ ‘Well, did you have pizza last night? Do you have a history of heart disease?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s the pain like? It’s like an elephant sitting on my chest, and I have pain going down my left arm, and I’m short of breath.’ ‘Okay, you need to go to the emergency room.’ But other than that, there’s a lot of telemedicine going on. I’ll tell you the biggest area that I see that is affected, is surgery. Non-essential surgeries are pretty much not being done… So, this is the crucial point about what’s being recommended by the government, and by Fauci, and all that. Is that social distancing and staying at home, it’s not that it gets rid of the virus, but you’re trying to avoid a lot of people getting sick all at once, where you don’t have the facilities and resources to take care of them. 

MP: As a physician, do you have any advice to members of the Bates communities who may be living in fear right now?

GRP: Yes, I do. I think number one: we are definitely going to get through this… I have great confidence in both the private sector in this country and the government to look at this and find treatments. We are already looking at the rapid approval of [antiviral drug] hydroxychloroquine, and I think this is a resilient nation – we will get through this… We will understand coronavirus better. We’ve gone through this before: polio, HIV, to a lesser extent SARS or ebola. But I think polio and HIV are good examplles of terrifying viruses that we have dealt with. Polio we have essentially eradicated, and HIV is so well managed it’s kind of like managing diabetes or high blood pressure. So, we will get through this.