Advance with MUSC Health

Lung Cancer During a Pandemic

Advance With MUSC Health
November 11, 2020
Robert "Eugene" Shields

Robert E. "Gene" Shields knows healthcare. From being a hospital administrator in the Air Force Medical Service Corps for most of his career to working for an insurer before retirement to making 10 trips to the OR over the course of his life, he's seen the world of healthcare from all directions. But dealing with lung cancer during a pandemic was entirely new to him.

"It's because of MUSC's reputation and my experience with them that I was willing to trust them in less than perfect circumstances," Shields says. "I knew they were going to take this as seriously as I would, and together, we could make this happen without endangering the staff or endangering me."

Despite the health problems of his past, Shields, 72, has had a good life. He currently lives a stone's throw from the sea on the Isle of Palms. Originally from North Carolina, he graduated from The Citadel before serving in the Air Force for 24 years. When he retired in 2004, he decided to return to the Lowcountry and has since spent his best days playing golf, riding bikes, going on walks with his wife, and playing with his grandchildren. Ten years ago, he even quit smoking.

Around that time, Shields also began building a great relationship with his Charleston primary care physician, MUSC Health's Dr. John McDonald. It was five years ago that McDonald suggested that he enroll in MUSC Health Hollings Cancer Center's Lung Cancer Screening Program that calls for an annual CT scan for anyone who qualifies as a long-time smoker, past or present. Growing up in Winston-Salem, both of Shields' parents worked for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, which he suggests played a role in his 50-year smoking habit, his mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and the tumor found on his lower left lobe earlier this year.

Because the country was in the midst of a pandemic scare and his cancer was only in stage one, his particular surgery was considered elective. But MUSC Health Thoracic Surgeon Dr. Chad E. Denlinger, together with the support of Nurse Practitioner Cassie Frazier, worked to get Shields in the operating room within a week of their first meeting. Shields says Denlinger “went to bat” for him.

"Not only was I thankful for his consideration for what type of surgery we could do but that we could get it done, and he made sure it got done," Shields says. "I didn't want to wait three, four, six months knowing there was something growing on my chest."

For Shields, getting to the bottom of and getting rid of his cancer was about his sanity, COVID or no COVID.

"Back when I knew that I had a tumor, it would have affected my mental health not to do something," he says. "I'm a worrier, I guess — I always have been.  But I think worry is good sometimes, as long as it results in action."

It also helped that Shields trusted and took comfort in knowing who was in charge of his medical care. With his experience both as an operator of hospitals and as a patient, he knew what to look for in a facility. "And MUSC has more than delivered on their promise," he says. "They have taken care of me in some of the most stressful moments of my life, and never have I found them less than professional or less than personable and human."

With his refined eye for healthcare facilities, Shields knows MUSC Health is truly changing what's possible — it's because of that knowledge that he chose a teaching hospital, he says, to administer his care. In his own family, he has seen the difference that great medical advances can make, from generation to generation.

Take his grandmother, for example, who died in 1966 of heart failure. Shields wonders if they may have suffered from the same problems. "In her case, it was impossible, and in mine, the system has made it possible," he says. "I chose MUSC because I felt like new technology, new services, new techniques would be available, because what is impossible today isn't necessarily going to be impossible in the future.

Now cancer-free and back on the golf course, Shields is an advocate for the same annual screening that caught his tumor so early and possibly saved his life. For him, it's better to know if something's wrong than to, out of fear, avoid checking in the first place. That's his advice to anyone fearful of checkups and screenings. "If you're concerned, don't put it off," he says. "It isn't going to get better on its own if it's something significant, and if it isn't significant, then it'll go away, and you'll quit thinking about it — so you're going to be better off no matter what you do. So go and do something.

Shields continues: "What may have been a life-ending diagnosis with our parents or grandparents is not now. We have changed the impossible to possible, and I think MUSC is doing their share of making that happen."

Find out about our Lung and Thoracic Cancer Program.