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Americans are putting life on hold as the COVID wave delays their surgeries

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Harry and Lorraine Sterling are hoping to travel this winter. But like hundreds of people in Rhode Island, short-staffed hospitals overwhelmed due to COVID-19 have put their plans on hold. That's because Harry, who is in his 80s, has been waiting and waiting for a surgery that would correct a painful back injury. Lynn Arditi of The Public's Radio in Rhode Island has their story.

LYNN ARDITI, BYLINE: Harry and Lorraine have been enjoying a kind of extended honeymoon since they married four years ago. They found each other on an internet dating site for seniors. They're regular theatergoers, and they still love to travel.

This winter, they'd planned to hitch their red Mini Cooper to their RV and cruise South. They had reserved sites in Alabama and Florida.

HARRY STERLING: The biggest trip was the year before last when we went south to Ocean City, Md.

LORRAINE STERLING: Oh, yeah, to Ocean City - well, outside of it, really. It's Crisfield, Md.

ARDITI: Harry was still riding his bike every morning then. But one day last fall, he lost his balance and went down near the shed in their backyard. Lorraine was working in the garden and heard the noise.

L STERLING: It just made my heart stop for a minute there. I thought, oh, my God. But nothing was broken.

ARDITI: Still, they realized Harry couldn't wait any longer. He needed back surgery. So in early December, he was waiting to be wheeled into the operating room at Rhode Island Hospital. The operation involved fusing three vertebrae in his lower spine so he could stand and walk normally again - no more shooting pain down his legs, no more grasping at furniture to keep from falling.

H STERLING: So I had a johnny on and an IV in my arm. The anesthesiologist had been through there. They reviewed the procedures. The physician came in and greeted me and marks the spot where the incision would be.

ARDITI: But then the doctor reappeared and told Harry that the assisting surgeon had tested positive for COVID-19.

L STERLING: He was all set to go, and they said, no, go home.

ARDITI: The operation was rescheduled for the Tuesday before Christmas. But by then, the hospital was delaying all but the most urgent surgeries. As in a lot of states, hospitals in Rhode Island were overwhelmed. By late January, surgical volume at Rhode Island Hospital, where Harry was to have his back operation, was down to about 25% of its normal capacity.

WILLIAM CIOFFI: No physician wants to be in a position of having to decide between patient one, two or three.

ARDITI: That's Dr. William Cioffi, chair of surgery for Lifespan, which runs Rhode Island Hospital.

CIOFFI: But the reality is right now we can't take care of all three patients, and so we have to prioritize as to who we think is most in need. And unfortunately, it's just not three patients. This is hundreds of patients.

ARDITI: That leaves people like Harry Sterling waiting. To manage his pain, he takes the prescription painkiller tramadol every four hours. He walks with a cane. Small things exhaust him, like getting out of bed in the morning.

H STERLING: And I hold onto things. Then I start fixing the coffee - again, holding onto the counter. And I toast an English muffin. Then Lorraine gets up, and she comes and picks up the coffee and the English muffin and takes it back to bed. And then I climb back in bed.

ARDITI: Harry and Lorraine still hope he'll get his surgery, and they'll hit the road in their beloved RV.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS FALLING)

ARDITI: The 26-foot Chateau by Thor sits parked in their driveway. The sky is white. A snowstorm is coming.

L STERLING: And this is the dinette and refrigerator, closet space, bathroom in the back and the bed, which folds up.

H STERLING: It's a queen-sized bed, actually.

ARDITI: There's plenty of room for the two of them and their dog, a fluffy Japanese Chin who always travels with them. Harry says they'd like to head North to Canada this summer, and he says they'll certainly go South next winter.

L STERLING: Harry's so hopeful that by spring, if the hospital opens up, you know, that he can get the surgery done. He doesn't know - no way of knowing.

ARDITI: Rhode Island's COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been declining since mid-January. But officials at Rhode Island Hospital, where Harry is waiting to have his back surgery, say they expect the staffing shortage to extend through March.

For NPR News, I'm Lynn Arditi in Providence.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN SONG, "IN THE SPACE CAPSULE (THE LOVE THEME)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.