Blog Post

April 27, 2020

Opinion: My husband works with cancer patients. I work with vulnerable populations. We still have hope.

By Flavia Mangan Colgan with James Mangan, MD


Flavia Colgan is the Director of the Colgan Foundation. She is a documentary filmmaker, a former Network TV Contributor, Daily News Editorial Board member, and the Former Chief of Staff to Pennsylvania's Lieutenant Governor. Flavia's writing has appeared in local and national publications.
James K. Mangan, MD, Ph.D., is a board-certified hematologist at UC San Diego Health where he actively researches ways to improve treatment options and outcomes for people with blood diseases and disorders. He is a member of the American Society of Hematology and American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation.
This article was first published in the San Diego Union-Tribune


About a month ago, I really started to worry about the psychological toll that COVID-19 was taking on my family.  My husband, Jim, is a leukemia and bone marrow transplant specialist and I worried every day when he headed off to take care of very ill and immunocompromised patients.  It turns out he was just as worried about me.

I have been advocating for the most vulnerable people in our society for over twenty years, through my work in government, philanthropy, faith-based initiatives, and as a documentary filmmaker.  The populations I have helped include the poverty-stricken and people of color needing a leg up in major urban centers across America.  I grew up on 7 Mile in Detroit and have lived in major cities across the US, including New York, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia.  Given my background, Jim warned me when the crisis began that I would know some of its victims on a deep, personal level, and that prediction has sadly come true.  My heart has borne a heavy toll in recent days, with the loss of close personal friends due to COVID-19.  In addition to the actual deaths, every day I hear stories about how COVID-19 has affected our most at-risk populations.  All communities have not been affected equally, and the poor and vulnerable among us have been the hardest hit.

In the midst of this crisis, we often think of the chronically ill and the elderly as vulnerable persons in society, but our young people are being hurt as well.  Through my work with the non-profit Colgan Foundation, I mentor and provide scholarships to over 70 students to attend Catholic schools in Philadelphia and that mentorship and support continues through college and young adulthood and beyond.  I have witnessed up close what this crisis means for our vulnerable young people, and they are facing new challenges too:  quarantines in an unsafe home environment, loss of jobs and independence, and hunger rearing its ugly head again.   When you are working two jobs and going to nursing school and suddenly your graduation date is deferred because you can’t complete the patient-care requirements, it is a dream deferred.  For those with little help, those deferred dreams take their toll, and the scales in a young person’s life tip from one who is going to make it on the margins to someone who has to settle for survival.  When the home environment is one of domestic violence and substance abuse, stress can sometimes exacerbate and magnify all of those pre-existing conditions, and often our struggling young people are the ones that pay the price.  The COVID-19 death toll is updated every day, but those who have been harmed by the crisis that COVID-19 has generated are enumerable and it’s on this list that our young people are often finding themselves.

"My anxiety goes up and my pulse quickens each time Jim leaves for another day of taking care of blood cancer patients.  He has had a front-row seat to how the coronavirus is changing cancer care."

Navigating a cancer diagnosis is incredibly scary and taxing in the best of times, but now many visits are conducted remotely through the video screen or with a masked doctor interacting across the exam room from a masked patient with a loved one listening over the speakerphone in a parking garage.  It is always best to avoid giving bad news on the phone, but visiting restrictions have necessarily led to more conversations without the power of personal interaction.  These are especially difficult times for patients whose time is limited.  Jim has been helping an active octagenarian navigate his way through a leukemia diagnosis.  His patient is in remission and doing beautifully.  But he is unable to fully partake in the fruits of our hard work together, confined with his wife in a small apartment, quarantined like the rest of us.  But we are thankfully decidedly middle age.  For patients with terminal cancer diagnoses, even when things are going well the achievement of a short window of precious and elusive “good quality of life” may be spent largely in quarantine.

"Strange and scary times indeed.  But as in all times of crisis, there are also beautiful moments where we have been able to lend our emotional, financial, and spiritual support to those in need and somehow manage to reach out and touch someone’s heart."  

Hard times can bring out the worst in humanity, but the converse is also true.  The great Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King once remarked that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘what are you doing for others.’”  His words have particular resonance in these times in which the entire world is ensnared in a struggle against a common enemy, a virus which shakes our sense of security to its core because who lives and who dies can be entirely capricious.   In these trying times, when the swath of humanity fighting the virus ranges from Prince Charles to impoverished immigrants in Queens, inequalities in society are laid bare.  The time has come to look beyond the confines of our own personal quarantines and consider the impact the virus has had on others.  From the frontlines of healthcare and social advocacy, my husband and I have witnessed what the virus has wrought up close and we share some of what we have witnessed here today, so that the kindness and generosity that lives within us all can be awakened and ignited.   

Flavia Colgan with James Mangan, MD.

Flavia Colgan is the Director of the Colgan Foundation. She is a documentary filmmaker, a former Network TV Contributor, Daily News Editorial Board member, and the Former Chief of Staff to Pennsylvania's Lieutenant Governor. Flavia's writing has appeared in local and national publications.

James K. Mangan, MD, PhD, is a board-certified hematologist at UC San Diego Health where he actively researches ways to improve treatment options and outcomes for people with blood diseases and disorders. He is a member of the American Society of Hematology and American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation

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