As life changed rapidly outside Reilly Starr’s 800-square-foot New York City apartment last week, she knew she couldn’t stay.
The Richmond native, who is 41 and has Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, didn’t feel safe to have her nanny come over, because riding the subway posed too much of a risk in a city where more than 3,600 people have now tested positive for the coronavirus.
Starr wanted to go home to Richmond, where she, her husband and her 2-year-old son could have more space — something they craved because the global coronavirus pandemic forced both adults to work from home.
She had started transferring her cancer treatment to Massey Cancer Center, with an initial intake call on Monday and a follow-up conversation with an intake coordinator Tuesday morning. But on Tuesday afternoon, she said, a patient coordinator called and told her the hospital was rejecting her as a patient because she was coming from an area with a coronavirus outbreak.
“I am appalled,” Starr wrote Tuesday on Facebook. “Imagine if our country’s hospitals all respond this way to cancer (or any other kind of severe health condition) patients looking to relocate to safer areas?”
A communications professional in New York, she hoped sharing her story online would bring attention to the situation.
“When you’re a terminally ill patient, you often have to advocate for yourself because doctors are busy people and they don’t know your case as well as you do,” Starr said in an interview. “You really have to learn to speak up for what you need.”
Soon, Starr was getting calls from VCU apologizing and promising to treat her when she moves to Richmond, under the condition she self-quarantines for 14 days after leaving New York.
In a statement, VCU Health said that its policy prohibits turning away a patient and that it continues to accept new ones, even as the hospital is adapting to confront the COVID-19 outbreak. VCU Health, which is prohibited from discussing individual patients, did not address Starr’s case in the statement.
As part of its precautions, VCU Health is screening all transfer patients, regardless of where they are transferring from, for COVID-19 risk factors, but will continue to accept any patient regardless of their COVID-19 test result, VCU Health spokeswoman Laura Rossacher said in a statement.
VCU Health announced Wednesday that it is also canceling most elective surgeries to increase capacity for urgent and emergency medical needs and is trying to limit face-to-face patient visits in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading.
“The way we deliver care is changing to best serve all of our patients during COVID-19 while offering a safe environment for providing and receiving care,” Rossacher wrote. “The safety of everyone is our No. 1 priority.”
Starr said she believes her experience forced leaders at VCU Health to have important conversations about how to treat patients during a global pandemic.
“People have not been through something like this crisis before,” Starr said. “A lot of new decisions are having to take place.”
Starr, who received her diagnosis 15 months ago, said that people like her — who are more vulnerable to viruses because of a weakened immune system — always live in a world where they have to wash their hands and stay away from sick people. But a pandemic ratchets up the anxiety.
“I’m looking forward to being home and that comfort level that you get from being home,” Starr said.
She got her final cancer treatment Thursday in New York and was planning to make the drive with her husband and son down to Richmond on Friday.
Her first appointment at Massey Cancer Center is set for April.