Dr. Brian Boulmay returned to his hometown of New Orleans in 2008 to create a hematology/oncology fellowship program at LSU Health Sciences Center, which had been halted following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Twelve years later, Boulmay is the director of the fellowship program and is helping chart a course in caring for cancer patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a society, we have forgotten how much an impact a very contagious infectious disease without a vaccine and without effective therapies can have,” said Boulmay who sees patients at University Medical Center New Orleans Cancer Center and the VA Medical Center, in addition to his duties training fellows.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1998 from the University of New Orleans, Boulmay attended medical school at Louisiana State University and completed his internship and residency in internal medicine at the University of Florida.
“I knew that the education that I received at UNO would position me well in the application to medical school, and it did,” Boulmay said. “Even today, I still recall classes taught by doctors Steve Johnson, Bernard Rees and Mark Trudell. The scientific foundation laid in my education at UNO has served me well.”
Boulmay, who is an associate professor in the hematology and oncology section at LSU Health Department of Medicine, said epidemics like COVID-19 were much more common in an era in which vaccinations and therapies were not common. For example with small pox, polio or measles, he said.
The HIV crisis of the 1980s and 1990s gave some indication of a new viral illness's impact, Boulmay said. More recently, the SARS outbreak in 2003 should have been a harbinger of future of events. However, that virus was contained and the world moved on, Boulmay said.
“It is a humbling experience to give a patient a diagnosis and know that we are not able to provide disease specific treatments, other than supportive care,” Boulmay said. “Fellows and practicing doctors are definitely learning the importance of containment strategies during this pandemic as, right now, this is the most effective intervention we have.”
Several of Boulmay’s patients have been diagnosed with COVID-19, but even those who required hospitalization survived and fully recovered, he said.
Because of the novel coronavirus, Boulmay said they have adapted strategies to limit spread of the disease. The most dramatic was the move to switch most clinic visits to telemedicine in order to limit the amount of time patients spent in a health care setting.
“For those patients who were not able to be seen via telehealth, such as those who needed to come in for chemotherapy, all health care providers practice as much social distancing as possible and are cognizant of the need to wash hands and wear masks anytime we are in the hospital,” Boulmay said.
“The pandemic has resulted in a substantial loss of life and placed a great deal of stress on the health care system. Louisiana was not impacted as significantly as feared, but that is really thanks to the forward-thinking implementation of mitigation strategies at the local and federal level.”
Until there is a vaccine or other effective measures, Boulmay said the preventative health measures currently in place will be the “new normal.”
“I can foresee the need for everyone to wear a mask when out, limiting visitors to hospitals and social distancing being with us for a while,” Boulmay said.
Patients often rely on the support of family and friends to get them through cancer treatment. However, COVID-19 restrictions limited patient visits in an effort to slow the spread.
Despite the restrictions, the medical staff works hard to maintain family ties, Boulmay said.
“The emotional impacts are significant and we do everything we can to keep families engaged and patients supported,” he said. “The social isolation for hospitalized patients can be mitigated by ensuring frequent telephone and FaceTime interactions, but it is obviously not the same as person-to-person interaction.”
Boulmay, who said he has always had a “scientific bent,” thought about a lab-based career. However, he didn’t think he had the patience required for the type of work done in a lab.
“The more immediate and tangible results you can see in clinical care was appealing to me,” Boulmay said. “The best part of the job are the interactions I have with patients and families.
“The diagnosis of a cancer is a profound and devastating event in someone’s life. To be able to guide a patient through the process of diagnosis and therapy is a real privilege.”