Nirav Patel, MD, woke up one Monday morning and thought he had the flu. “This was March 2020, right when we knew about COVID but maybe a week before everything got very crazy,” remembers the kidney specialist. “I hated calling in sick, but I couldn’t go to work that day. Or the next two. I kept spiking fevers and having night sweats.
“I went for influenza and COVID testing at a nearby urgent care center and tested positive for the flu. They discovered that my heart rate was also very rapid with concern for dehydration, so I drove myself to Sewickley Hospital, which was nearby.
“My lab results showed that, yes, I was dehydrated, but my chest X-ray also showed that I had pneumonia. So I was admitted to the hospital and was given antibiotics as well as IV fluids, but my fever still wouldn’t come down.
“A CT scan was then obtained for further investigation. The scan showed something blocking one of the areas in my airways. I was evaluated by a pulmonologist who performed a bronchoscopy — and he found a tumor in my lung.
“I was shocked. I had just turned 41. I was a nonsmoker. I’m physically active. The tumor was ultimately found to be a carcinoid tumor, which is an uncommon, slow-growing tumor. My treating doctors told me that I probably had it for a while.
“I was pretty shaken up. That’s when my oncologist at Sewickley sent me to Dr. Inderpal Sarkaria at UPMC Shadyside. ‘If you’re going to see anyone,’ she said, ‘Dr. Sarkaria is the guy you want to see.’
“Dr. Sarkaria put me at ease right away. He just had such a calm demeanor, and he was very patient in answering my questions and my family’s questions. We physicians think we understand how important it is to talk to patients and make them feel comfortable. But when you are a patient yourself, having that role reversed, you realize how you truly appreciate someone who takes time to answer your questions. Especially when you’re dealing with lung cancer.
“This was a scary time, especially with COVID cases on the rise. I had ongoing fear that if I were to be exposed to COVID, the lung tumor could put me at risk for severe complications. So the first thing Dr. Sarkaria did was to remove part of the tumor by robotic bronchoscopy. But he didn’t yet know how much surgery I would need. In the best-case scenario, he would take out a small portion of my lung (lung-sparing surgery) with a complex procedure called a ‘sleeve’ resection, most often requiring a big incision and open surgery. Another possibility was that I could lose up to two-thirds of my lung. I was very anxious about that. But Dr. Sarkaria told me he’s had patients who’ve had more of their lung removed, and even if he had to do that, he informed me that I would still be able to lead a very normal and active life.
“It was a long surgery because of the complexity and also because he was so careful. Using robotic surgery, he was able to remove only a partial section of my airway and a small portion of my lung and sew the remaining parts back together to preserve the rest of my lung. The robotic technology meant that there would be less scarring and a shorter recovery time and helped avoid a big open incision. I had the surgery on Monday and went home on Thursday morning.
“Dr. Sarkaria told me recovery would take about two months. The first two weeks I had some difficulty walking around, but by week three, I was able to start doing some video visits from home with my patients. By week seven, I was back on call and working my regular schedule. I am now tumor free, and he told me that the likelihood of recurrence is minimal.
“I feel very thankful that we have surgeons like Dr. Sarkaria here. He is awesome. I can’t say enough good things about not only his skill but his bedside manner. He made me realize how important it is to sit down and spend time with patients and their families. Even though I’m a physician, I have questions, fears, and knowledge gaps as well. Dr. Sarkaria’s patience and communication made such a big difference to me. I hope I have learned from it.
“And I wanted to tell my story because maybe it will help other people who may be faced with a serious illness. I hope they feel, ‘Well, he did it, I guess I can do it too.’”