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'It could cost me my life.' | Hospital bed shortage leaves cancer patient unable to get surgery

Kentucky hospitals are filling to capacity due to COVID and its left a Vietnam veteran battling stage 4 cancer wondering if and when he will receive surgery.

BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Jo and Gary Borland built their dream home in Bardstown nearly two decades ago.

Outside, it’s quiet, peaceful, serene. But inside, their hearts are heavy.

“I feel this tremendous sense of loss and fear," Jo said.

Married for 38 years, they said this experience is the hardest thing they’ve gone through.

Worse, they said, than when they first learned in March of Gary's diagnosis: Stage four, colon cancer.

But now, there are more unknowns. Because getting the help he needs isn’t certain.

“It could cost me my life,” he said.

The problem? After rounds of chemotherapy, Gary needs surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. But right now, he said hospitals don’t have room for him.

“They are at capacity.” Jo said.

Gary added, “To me it’s just not right.”

Credit: WHAS-TV
Jo and Gary Borland

A spokesperson at UofL Health — Jewish Hospital, where Gary’s waiting for an appointment, said they’re seeing a surge in COVID patients. About 95% of them are unvaccinated.

“And I might lose my life for what's happening right now,” he said.

He got vaccinated against COVID back in January to minimize the threat of becoming infected. He didn’t foresee the threat of not being able to get surgery for his cancer. 

“He is being forced to suffer the consequences of other people's decision not to be vaccinated.” Jo said.

His love of biking has been put on hold as his body takes a toll.

“It's draining, draining everything out of me. As far as energy. I don't have the energy,” Gary explained.

But what’s more painful, he said, is the familiar feeling of this moment. 

“Kind of brings everything back to me," he said. 

Gary remembers returning home after the Vietnam War in 1971. He was a medic, treating the most seriously wounded.

“We were always just, you know, looked down upon,” Gary said.

Decades later, he needs care. But his surgery is delayed indefinitely, leaving him feeling pushed aside. He said it's the same feeling he had after returning home following his service in the Vietnam War. 

Credit: WHAS-TV
Jo Borland

“Are you surprised by what this family is going through?” FOCUS investigative reporter Paula Vasan asked.

“I'm not surprised,” said Nancy Galvagni, president of the Kentucky Hospital Association. She’s sharing their new research with WHAS11 for the first time.

“What we're living in is unprecedented,” she said.

On any given day in Kentucky, 82% of hospital beds are filled, according to their research. For specifically beds in the intensive care unit, they’re nearly 90% occupied.

“The sickest of the sick have to be prioritized,” Galvagni explained.

This problem isn’t just about available beds, but about a strained workforce.

“We don't have enough nurses to staff all the beds we have," she said. 

For Gary, that means it’s harder to find the right doctor, on the right day, at the right hospital with the right equipment. It's like finding a needle in a haystack.

“How would you describe the situation that we're in right now?” Vasan asked.

“We're in a crisis,” Galvagni, said. “And it’s putting a huge strain on our hospitals and the ability to care for not just COVID patients, but others that need hospital care for non COVID related illnesses.”

Credit: WHAS-TV
Nancy Galvagni, Kentucky Hospital Association president

She believes a greater portion of the population needs to get vaccinated against COVID. 

“By getting the vaccine, you know, you're actually helping to free up beds for other people that need to be in the hospital,” Galvagni explained.

For now, Jo prays Gary will sit beside her for longer. She prays for a hospital bed. She prays for a future.

“And I cannot imagine life without him,” she said.

Gary was supposed to be in surgery this past Friday. But that’s not happening, because doctors still don’t know when a bed will be available.

In a statement, a spokesperson at UofL Health told FOCUS:

“The number of COVID-19 patients admitted to our hospitals is the highest we’ve experienced at any other point of the pandemic, we acknowledge the recent procedure delays are even more heartbreaking because they are avoidable if more of our unvaccinated population got vaccinated.”

Right now, Jo and Gary are pleading with lawmakers to set up alternative facilities for COVID patients, so that they and others like them can stop waiting.

Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear’s Office said the lack of staff is one of the biggest issues facing hospitals across the state, as they try to care for patients amid an increasing population of COVID patients.

Make it easy to keep up-to-date with more stories like this. Download the WHAS11 News app now. For Apple or Android users.  

Want to contact investigative reporter Paula Vasan? Email pvasan@whas11.com, or reach out to her on her Facebook or Twitter