This is part of a series of stories profiling members of the Niagara Health team and the work they are doing as part of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meet Dr. Stephanie Phillips, a General Surgeon at Niagara Health.
The surgical team’s openness to doing things differently is what has struck Dr. Stephanie Phillips most about working during the pandemic.
Dr. Phillips, a General Surgeon at Niagara Health’s St. Catharines Site, has been part of the team that continues to provide emergent and urgent surgeries during the pandemic. As required by the provincial government, our response to the COVID pandemic included the postponement of all but the most urgent and emergent surgeries.
“Our surgical team is being open and flexible and everyone is doing whatever is needed to get our priority cases done. It’s nice to know we have the support of everybody,” says Dr. Phillips, who joined Niagara Health in 2009 after completing her medical school and residency training at McMaster University. “This is a big challenge. Everybody has handled it very well. The support and the team attitude is what keeps us all working smoothly.”
As a General Surgeon, Dr. Phillips focuses primarily on surgeries involving the abdomen, like hernia or gallbladder procedures, and oncology surgeries, including breast cancer, colon cancer and melanoma. Our General Surgeons have performed about 140 cancer procedures so far during the pandemic.
Niagara Health recently received approval to reintroduce all surgical, procedural and outpatient services over the coming weeks and months using a gradual, phased approach.
What has changed about your work during the pandemic?
Our General Surgery group has really banded together across the three sites (Welland, Niagara Falls and St. Catharines). Largely up until this point, our General Surgeons have worked at their respective sites and we did not see a lot of each other at the other sites. During the pandemic, we got together as an entire group, and we are working together to prioritize all of the higher-risk patients and cancer cases (the ones that can be performed by a General Surgeon) so they can be done in a timely fashion. The General Surgeons are completely caught up on our cancer surgeries right now. We also organize the schedule so we are conserving personal protective equipment. For example, that may mean having one surgeon in the OR (operating room) for the whole day rather than three separate surgeons. It has been impressive to see how we have come together as a group. It has been really nice getting to know and work more with the surgeons at the other sites who I didn’t have a lot of contact with before.
What have been some of the challenges during the pandemic?
The biggest challenge has been the scheduling and trying to keep everybody organized. We have the guiding principles we are working through, the ethical framework, that we have to get the highest-priority cases done first. Also, the operating room does not move as fast as it did before. There are a lot more protocols in place now that we have to take COVID precautions into account, so we can do everything in the safest way possible. For example, in the OR, after the patient goes to sleep, we have to wait 18 minutes for the air circulation system to circulate the air three times so that viral exposure that is in the air is less. After the surgery, we have to wait another 18 minutes before we can leave the room.
What is a learning you have gained during the pandemic?
For me, it has been the way the General Surgeons can all work as a group, across the sites. I am impressed with how everybody is willing to change and adapt. Sometimes we think, ‘This is how I’ve always done it,’ but now is the time where we are able to make changes and see that they can work.
Have you been using telephone or video conferencing for pre-surgery or post-surgery appointments with patients to increase safety?
It’s tricky as a surgical specialty to see new consults using virtual care because it’s impossible to examine something like a hernia looking on a screen. But certainly for follow-up visits and giving results, there’s definitely a lot of room for virtual care in our practices. I’ve been doing phone calls with patients after surgery and have done it in whatever situations are appropriate in my practice. Some visits that used to happen in my office post-surgery can now be done over the phone, something I did not do before. However, sometimes I need to see them in my office face-to-face with all of the right COVID precautions.
What has been the biggest challenge for you personally during the pandemic?
Having four kids in the house, the hardest thing for me has been managing their anxiety and expectations. They want to go out and do the things they used to do, and are frustrated when they can’t. I find that to be most challenging.
How do you unwind after work?
Ice cream and exercise. My husband and I try to do some sort of exercise each night, either yoga, stretching or weight training. Some nights it’s basketball or bike rides with the kids. And other nights it’s a nice walk in the beautiful weather. The ice cream comes after as a tasty reward.