West Michigan Woman’s Hospital Stay Uncovers COVID-19 and Cancer

Julie Bitely

| 4 min read

In less than one week, Tina Reuben faced two life-threatening diagnoses: COVID-19 and cancer. What’s happened since then has strengthened her faith, forcing her to focus on the present moment with fierce determination and intention. “No one is guaranteed more than today,” she explains.

Taking every precaution

Reuben, a 49-year-old physical therapist from Grand Rapids, knew working with patients put her at higher risk for contracting the novel coronavirus. Every day she put her mask, goggles and other gear on to protect herself, her patients and others. She would change her clothes before leaving work, and then immediately shower at home. She and her husband, Terence, started sleeping in separate bedrooms to further minimize exposure.

Diagnosis, isolation and the power of nurses

Tina Reuben with her husband, Terence Reuben
Tina Reuben with her husband, Terence Reuben. Reuben, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan member, never experienced typical COVID-19 symptoms. She was, however, experiencing rapidly rising blood pressure. As someone in good shape, with no underlying health conditions or medications that could cause a spike, Reuben was alarmed. “You don’t get hypertension in a week,” she said. She was admitted to the hospital on May 13 with a dangerously high blood pressure level, still unaware she had COVID-19. Her doctor did notice some shortness of breath as they were talking and decided to test for the virus, just to be sure. “I was shocked when it came back positive because I hadn’t had any symptoms,” she said. It wasn’t the virus causing the high blood pressure though, it was critically low potassium. This led to Reuben experiencing severe body spasms, which she faced alone due to COVID-19 isolation. Her husband of 24 years couldn’t physically be there to hold her hand. Her care team worked to stabilize her and root out a cause by performing a CT scan amongst other tests. When her doctor reviewed her CT scan and told her about the tumor that had been growing in her body, her husband had to listen in virtually. Reuben was diagnosed with adrenocortical carcinoma, a very rare and aggressive type of cancer that forms in the outer layer of the adrenal gland. “It was very, very hard,” she said of facing the diagnosis alone. On the night she learned about the cancer, Reuben remembers her nurse coming in and telling her “I’m just going to hold your hand as long as you need me to.” “The compassion of nurses,” she started, trailing off. “They are really the heroes of this whole COVID thing.”

Forward momentum and faith

Throughout her dual diagnosis and treatment, Reuben believes the right people were placed in her life at the right time. And she doesn’t think it’s all been coincidental. “I don’t take that for granted. I know that God has a plan,” she said. Reuben’s tumor was removed at the University of Michigan in June. Despite a winding road to get there, including changes to her core care team, she was amazed at how quickly they were able to mobilize and successfully remove her tumor. Now, she’s weighing different treatment options, including clinical trials to get rid of any cancer cells that could not be seen by the surgeon. She knows there is still healing that needs to happen. She looks forward to the day she can return to work and thinks often of the words of one of her patients, a partial quadriplegic who recovered enough to walk again. Amazed by his resolve, she asked him what drove him. “‘Are you going to sit your butt there or are you going to do something?’” Reuben recalls the patient telling her that asking himself that was his way to motivate himself to keep going. “‘I have to think that multiple times per day’,” he further explained, noting that the will to overcome was something that had to be reignited often. Now, Reuben is the patient and it’s her turn to redirect thoughts of despair, to stay strong and to push forward. With the support of her family, friends and faith, she’s not letting go of one second. She admits it’s not always easy, but she refuses to succumb. “It’s in our weakness that you see God’s strength,” she said. Related:
Photo credit: Light Field Studios
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