Indiana Woman Treks to New Jersey for Expert Thyroid Treatment
Typically, we photograph every patient appearing in HealthU. Because this story was planned during the COVID-19 pandemic, that contact would have been too risky. Instead, our team took a creative approach and replaced photo shoots with illustrated portraits of patients.
Kathy Renta felt like a boa constrictor was wrapped around her neck. Kathy had been treated for thyroid problems for more than a dozen years, and struggling to breathe or speak normally, she knew a rapidly growing thyroid gland known as a goiter was to blame for her increasingly dramatic symptoms. But the former New Jersey resident also knew from diligent research that her current home state of Indiana didn’t offer the level of medical care she would need to restore her health.
So it made perfect sense to Kathy, 58, to turn to Jersey Shore University Medical Center—where she had undergone prior surgeries—and endocrine surgeon Alexander Shifrin, M.D.
Kathy’s online research produced Dr. Shifrin’s credentials, including advanced training in treating diseases of the thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands, and distinction as the only surgeon in the United States also certified by the European Board of Surgery in endocrine procedures.
“It looked like I had a stovepipe neck—you couldn’t see my jawline,” Kathy says. “A CAT scan showed my thyroid was wrapped around my throat, and it was quite scary because I couldn’t really breathe and certain movements felt like being punched in the throat.”
The quick growth of Kathy’s goiter in early 2020 coincided with the emerging coronavirus pandemic, complicating efforts to get it assessed and treated. Once she narrowed her options, Kathy’s first consultation with Dr. Shifrin was done through telehealth, with each person viewing the other on computer screens from hundreds of miles apart.
Though Kathy’s enlarged thyroid didn’t appear to be cancerous, Dr. Shifrin still sensed the urgency of her situation. “Only about 5 percent of goiter patients have goiters as big as hers,” he explains, noting that surgery is the standard treatment in such cases.
In normal circumstances, scheduling thyroid removal surgery, including performing an array of preoperative tests, would be fairly straightforward. But COVID-19 constraints and Kathy’s far-off location threw frustrating hurdles into this process that required flexibility and perseverance to overcome.
Dr. Shifrin’s team helped coordinate Kathy’s medical clearances in Indiana, scheduling her in-person arrival at Jersey Shore days before the operation to ensure every possible remaining detail had been addressed. After arranging to stay with a friend near the hospital, Kathy drove herself to New Jersey from Indiana, splitting the 12-hour drive over two days to accommodate her ever-present shortness of breath and other discomfort.
“I was in bad shape and just needed to get there,” she recalls. “I knew Dr. Shifrin was the answer to help me.”
Perseverance Pays Off
Kathy’s 2.5-hour surgery in October 2020 was made more complex by the large proportions of her goiter, which continued to grow even as plans were made to remove it. Dr. Shifrin, who prefers to avoid blood transfusions during surgery, also faced a long list of other complications that might arise.
Aside from excessive blood loss, these include nerve damage around the voice box and trachea, as well as injury to nearby parathyroid glands, which help regulate the body’s calcium levels.
“These complications are critical and may be devastating,” Dr. Shifrin says. “Patients with a large goiter are much more likely to develop them than those with a small goiter.”
Fortunately, Kathy’s surgery went smoothly, and her enlarged thyroid was benign. A large horizontal incision was unavoidable, but Dr. Shifrin was able to spare crucial neck muscles from being cut, reducing trauma to the area.
“I could talk. I could breathe,” Kathy recalls. “It felt like the boa constrictor was gone.”
Recovering in her friend’s home after an overnight hospital stay, the only wrinkle Kathy faced was a persistent headache that proved unrelated to her surgery but required tweaks to her blood pressure medication.
The former executive secretary was able to head back to Indiana in time for Thanksgiving, just as she had hoped.
“Dr. Shifrin did a remarkable job, and I can’t praise him enough for what an outstanding surgeon he is. In my opinion, he saved my life,” Kathy says. “Everyone learned a lot during this pandemic, and one thing I learned is we need to have a lot of patience and perseverance to get through it all.”
Next Steps & Resources:
Jersey Shore University Medical Center offers one of the few endocrine surgery programs in New Jersey, providing high-quality care across the range of diseases affecting the thyroid, parathyroid and adrenal glands
Meet our source: Alexander Shifrin, M.D. To make an appointment with Dr. Shifrin or another doctor near you, call 800-822-8905 or visit our website.
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