A Colorado family faces cancer and the realities of a pandemic.
By Steve Sullivan
For weeks, every story at Mary Greeley Medical Center has been a COVID-19 story.
That’s been true even when the story is about a young woman facing cancer.
In February, Brittany Foster, an Iowa State student from Colorado, started feeling ill. She spent several days at Mary Greeley being treated for mononucleosis.
She continued to feel bad days after getting out of the hospital. At her mother’s urging, she returned back to Mary Greeley’s Emergency Department and was admitted to the hospital. In mid-March she had a bone marrow biopsy. Her parents came back from Colorado with plans to be in Ames a few days and then take their daughter back home.
Then, on March 20, came the diagnosis. Brittany and her parents gathered with Dr. Venkatesh Rudrapatna, a McFarland Clinic oncologist, who delivered the news: acute myeloid leukemia.
“It was a shock to everyone,” said Brittany’s mom, Roseann. “A nuclear bomb,” added her dad, Sean.
Despite the shock, the Foster’s praise Rudrapatna for giving them an immediate sense of optimism and confidence.
“The way he presented the news to Brittany was phenomenal. He was encouraging. He told Brittany that she was a fighter and that we’d start treatment tomorrow,” said Roseann. “We were going to fight it and we were going to beat it. As a mom, it helped me not let my mind go to a really dark place.”
Brittany took a medical leave from Iowa State, which ultimately shifted to online courses because of COVID-19. She would have to give up her job at Aunt Maude’s, a popular Ames restaurant which would close because of COVID-19. When it came to deciding whether the Fosters would stay in Ames for Brittany’s treatment or go home, the pandemic was the decider.
Sean looked at COVID-19 cases in Colorado, which at that time were higher than in Iowa. They opted to stay at Mary Greeley.
Brittany couldn’t escape the impact of COVID-19. But that wasn’t her main concern, of course. She was facing a life-threatening illness, with her parents at her side, though that too would be complicated by COVID-19.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, Mary Greeley had to institute visitor restrictions.
On March 18, visitors were restricted to 2 people – the same 2 for the duration of a patient’s stay. Then, on April 7, due to increasing virus concerns, a no visitor policy was announced.
For the first 14 days of Brittany’s time at Mary Greeley, her dad self-quarantined at a local hotel. He’d visit the hospital, connecting with his wife and daughter via cell phone while standing in the parking lot.
He was eventually able to join Brittany and Roseann in a Burke Family Suite on Mary Greeley’s oncology unit. But this arrangement was in jeopardy when the no visitor policy went into place.
Exceptions to policies are sometimes called for … times when pure humanity rules the moment, times when Mary Greeley’s philosophy of ‘doing what’s right’ rings loudest. Such was the case when, due to Brittany’s precarious health condition, a decision was made to allow both parents to continue to stay in the Burke Family Suite during the course of their daughter’s cancer treatment. They were there through all the ups and downs. The chemo. The nausea. The hair loss. The anxiousness that comes with waiting for results from the latest tests.
Being able to be with their daughter during it all meant “everything,” said Roseann.
The Burke Family Suite provided a comfortable home away from home week after week. The hospital’s garden on the fifth floor of Mary Greeley’s west tower offered a soothing place to take a break, get some air and do a little exercise. Sean kept busy working remotely. Roseann, along with Brittany’s older sister Bethany, who was in Colorado, managed the 24-hour care of her elderly parents long distance, a task made all the more challenging due to their frailty and pandemic concerns.
“We were extremely impressed with the hospital staff, from the nurses to the doctors, to those delivering meals and cleaning the rooms,” said Sean. “Everyone’s been awesome. Always asking if there was anything else they can do for us. We’ve been truly impressed by the kindness and how gracious everyone is.”
After several courses of treatment and 59 days in the hospital, Brittany was in remission and in good enough shape for the journey home to Colorado. At home, she will continue chemo treatments and likely have a bone marrow transplant, with her older sister, Bethany, as a donor.
The relief that came with finally getting out of the hospital was still clouded by COVID-19. At Mary Greeley, Brittany was in a controlled, regularly cleaned environment, surrounded by people wearing masks. Now, with a weakened immune system, she’d be getting back out in the world. Sheltered from COVID-19, she and her family would now have to navigate a pandemic world.
They are happy to be home though and ready to see Brittany continue to make progress. Sean is confident his daughter will get good care in Colorado, but after weeks at Mary Greeley, he’s “seen how high the bar is set.”