In this episode, oncologist Bryan Schneider and infectious disease expert Adrian Gardner from Indiana University, share what it has been like to get knocked down with COVID-19 twice, care for patients during the pandemic, lead the University’s COVID response, and even a supreme court case on vaccination.
Air Date: 12/7/21
SPEAKER: The purpose of this podcast is to educate and inform. This is not a substitute for medical care and is not intended for use in the diagnosis or treatment of individual conditions. Guests on this podcast express their own opinions, experience, and conclusions. The mention of any product, service, organization, activity, or therapy should not be construed as an ASCO endorsement.
PAT LOEHRER: Hi. I'm Pat Loehrer. I'm a director of the Centers for Global Health and Health Equity at Indiana University Simon Cancer Center.
DAVE JOHNSON: And I'm Dave Johnson. I'm a medical oncologist at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Texas.
PAT LOEHRER: Well, welcome back to ASCO's education new podcast series entitled Oncology, Etc. Today, we'll be joined by two outstanding guests, Dr. Bryan Schneider and Dr. Adrian Gardner. We're going to do a deep dive about COVID-19. And Dave, I was thinking-- I was reflecting on my life. The thing in medicine is when new diseases come out. So in our earlier lives, when we started there, was no such thing as Lyme disease, HIV/AIDS-- tumors didn't exist. And then just in the last couple of years now, we have COVID-19, the SARS CoV 2. And I think as physicians, it's kind of exciting. What's your experience been with the COVID-19 in the wards at Parkland?
DAVE JOHNSON: Well, it's been really, very challenging. You know, I don't know that the public yet has fully grasped the magnitude of this disease. I mean, 700,000-plus Americans have died of this disease. That's an astonishing number when you think about it. And I was just on the general medical wards just a couple of weeks ago with a wonderful team of residents and students. Patients with this disease are very sick. We often downplay it, but I'm telling you, these people are really quite ill and can get ill and symptomatic rapidly, within hours.
So this is a serious illness. But I agree with you. One of the things I told the residents a year ago was to keep a journal, that there are a few times during the course of your training and career where a new disease emerges, and you can be part and parcel of that. And keeping a diary of what happened is something that I wish I had done when AIDS emerged back in the '80s, or other disease processes, like Lyme, as you mentioned.
PAT LOEHRER: And syphilis for you, wasn't it?
DAVE JOHNSON: Well, that was sort of the [LAUGHS] Hippocratic oath days, but yeah, no. I think that was-- I think-- I can't remember. We were hanging out together at the time, so I don't remember exactly.
Yeah, no, it's been really remarkable. The thing that's been interesting to me is the response of individuals and their families to the disease, particularly once the vaccines came available. So maybe we can delve into that a little bit today, because I know one of our guests has actually experienced that himself, so we'll know more about that later.
PAT LOEHRER: I don't think, to be honest, that we could have a better collective wisdom than we have today with Dr. Schneider and Dr. Gardner, who will talk about their personal and professional and I think the global impact of COVID. I don't think there's any two people better than that. The only thing we could do better is if Anthony Fauci was here by himself. But these guys are tremendous people.
Dr. Gardner went to medical school at Brown, did his fellowship and infectious disease at Beth Israel, and then did his MPH at Harvard, and joined the faculty in Indiana University in 2012. When he was a student, he spent time in Kenya, with Joe Mamlin from Indiana University as part of the AMPATH program. And he came back to become the field director there. And he is just an outstanding person. He's now the director of the Center of Global Health for Indiana University and the Associate Dean for Global Health and has led the contact tracing for Indiana University. And he's going to give us some input from this.
Bryan, again, I've known forever. He's just an outstanding medical oncologist. He is now a Professor of Medicine and Medical and Molecular Genetics here at IU. He's a Vera Bradley chair of oncology. He is the founding chair of our precision genomics program and just a superstar in breast cancer as well as pharmacogenomics and was one of the first to describe the unique neuropathy associated with the taxanes in breast cancer. So it's just a pleasure to have both of you here.
DAVE JOHNSON: You know, Pat, it's great to have that talent there. It balances out the negativity of other faculty members. But that's great. Welcome, both of you.
PAT LOEHRER: I loved you a minute ago. I've turned mute on from a distance here. Adrian, tell me a little bit about yourself, growing up and how you got to where you were.
ADRIAN GARDNER: Sure, thanks. And thanks so much for the invitation and for being part of this and for the generous introduction. So as you said, Pat, I'm a product of an international environment. That's an important part of my upbringing, actually. I was born in Scotland to two parents that-- born and bred in Scotland and grew up in Scotland. I spent the first six years of my life really living in France and then moved to Lawrence, Kansas, which was quite a cultural shift, but spent four years there. And it was great, actually, time in my life to be there, before moving to the East Coast, where I went to school and did all my medical training.
So I'd had international experiences before, and I think that was an important part of my upbringing and something I sought for my kids, in the sense that it just immediately resets your sense of the world and makes you feel like a global citizen as opposed to just sort of more limited-- the community you're surrounded by.
But it really wasn't until my experience as a fourth-year medical student at Brown that I had the opportunity to see health care in a low-resource setting and see that. And that was a very powerful experience professionally and personally. And as you said, it was the time when Joe Mamlin was really just dreaming up what the HIV response was going to look like, this nice institutional partnership that we'd set up in Western Kenya.
But we set it up in the middle of the global pandemic. And true to our mission of responding and leading with care, felt a need to respond to the HIV pandemic. And that started really by-- was motivated by personal interactions that Joe had with some individuals who he saw firsthand come back to life, the Lazarus effect that has been reported. And that really spawned this whole response, changed my career and certainly my life, and had profound effects on my life.
So that's a bit of who I am as an individual and how I got to where I am today.
PAT LOEHRER: And we're going to touch on some of the work that you're doing now. But before I do, Bryan, tell us a little bit about and your background, where you grew up and how you got to where you are today.
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: Thanks to you, and Dave as well, for having me on. And this will be an interesting perspective, because I think I'm coming on here as the patient this time, so it'll be a different view.
But in contradistinction to Adrian, I am a pure Hoosier. I was born in the southern part of the state and raised there and then drove three hours north to Indianapolis, where I've set up for the last 25 years, and just been really lucky to be here at Indiana University. And Pat, you may not even remember this-- about 25 years ago, you were my formal mentor for med school, and so one of the influences and sticking around here along with some other real greats along the way. So have done, as you mentioned, breast medical oncology here in genomics and have had an absolute blast. So thanks for having me on.
PAT LOEHRER: Oh, we love having you. And just as an aside, Bryan-- one is I think the world of you, and so proud of what you've accomplished. But Bryan's backyard actually was the home of Henry Lynch, and where he first described Lynch syndrome down in southern Indiana. And I think no greater tribute in his legacy than what you have done with precision genomics. It's really terrific.
DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah. Maybe we'll have some time to delve into that. But actually, I'm curious, Bryan-- you mentioned that you've come on as the patient. My understanding is you've had firsthand experience with COVID, not just as a physician, but as the recipient of that wonderful new virus. Maybe you could tell us a little about that?
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: Yeah, an interesting experience to be sure. So about 2 and 1/2 months ago, I tested positive for COVID and got really sick. Yeah, my three-year-old son had brought it home from his preschool and infected his older brother, who's almost 12, and then my wife and myself. And so was a really fascinating experience, I guess, and brought about some aspects to the virus that I had never really thought about.
PAT LOEHRER: Now, Bryan, you also had COVID before, too.
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: Yes. And the first time-- I was probably one of the very, very early cases and got really sick with it and lost my sense of taste and smell. I actually got one of the purple fingers, which I went to the ER for. I thought I was having a or something. And at the time, those weren't well-recognized symptoms. And that loss of taste and smell went months for me. So, yeah, I think I have frankly had the infection twice. The second time, though, was documented and certainly got really sick with the second one.
DAVE JOHNSON: Can you elaborate on your second case? When you say you got really sick, was it a respiratory illness or were there other symptoms?
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: Yeah, there were two aspects to it that were interesting. I think the first was physical. I got a sense of fatigue that I don't know that I have ever experienced before. It was one that I literally just could not get out of bed. And you know, I lost about 10 to 15 pounds from just being anorectic. And I'm not an overly thick human to begin with.
But the big one was shortness of breath. And we had a pulse ox at home. My wife's a pediatrician, and I was sating in the high 80s. And I work out five or six times a week, so keep in pretty good shape, and I was stopping midway up the stairs to sit down, because I felt really tachycardic and just lightheaded. And so that degree of physical punishment is something like I have never expected or felt before.
But the psychological part of it was really something I did not expect. And one part of that was an odd sense of guilt. I was getting texts and calls from a lot of friends checking on me, and many were baffled and asking, hey, did you not get vaccinated? Or what was going on with that? And so that-- it was a very odd sensation to me, because I, of course, had been vaccinated and I mask and all those sort of things.
The other was one of real fear. I worried-- you know, luckily, I guess, our family all got infected around the same time, so we didn't have to think about quarantine. But I started wondering, could I have infected a patient? I take care of immunosuppressed breast cancer patients, before I was symptomatic. And then even after I came back to work, I had quarantined for quite some time, but I was really fearful. I would find myself double masking, washing my hands incessantly, and even holding my breath when I was trying to listen to heart and lungs during examination. So that sort of psychology was something I don't think I really expected with this infection.
DAVE JOHNSON: How long did it take you to get beyond that, or are you beyond that part?
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: Yeah. You know, I feel back to my baseline now. And I certainly don't worry about it on a day-to-day basis now. But my first clinic or two back was really hard for me, psychologically and emotionally. And part of me even wondered, should I profess to all my patients that I've had COVID? Or what things can I do to help protect them? And again, it was that mental aspect that I just didn't really anticipate prior to heading back to my clinic.
DAVE JOHNSON: You know, this is eerily reminiscent of the physician who's had cancer who experiences extreme fatigue for the first time, chemotherapy-induced fatigue, after having described it many, many times before--
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: Right.
DAVE JOHNSON: --and who has a guilt sensation in many respects as well. So quite the experience, for sure.
PAT LOEHRER: Dave was talking about himself, by the way.
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: No, I can only imagine. And you're right. We do try to paint a picture to patients about how things are going to feel, and it's amazing. When it's internalized or when you're feeling, it's-- it can often bring about a sense of, wow, I don't know that I-- I may have underplayed this to some of my patients in the past. And it really does provide some degree of empathy that's hard to capture if you haven't felt it.
DAVE JOHNSON: So when I was on the wards, Bryan, I must confess, there were times when we walked into a patient's room with COVID who, of course, had not been vaccinated long after the vaccines were approved. Our professionalism prevents us from doing anything other than taking care of those people, but I'm wondering how you feel about caring for patients who have not been vaccinated or refuse to be vaccinated.
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: Yeah. I mean, I think probably similar to a lot of people listening here today, it's a bit frustrating. And I think we all take care of patients who have a really tough diagnosis. And we're in the interesting field of giving patients medications that really immunosuppresses them, so we spend time counseling on the fact that you may get really sick or hospitalized or even die from neutropenic sepsis. And I think that is something that rests really hard with patients who are already dealing with a life-threatening diagnosis.
And so now, trying to do that counseling in the face of a global pandemic like we haven't seen for a hundred years has really brought around a sense of duress and distress in my patients like I've never seen before. You know, I even had a patient who moved away from her family to be quarantined during adjuvant therapy, which I, of course, recommended against. But it really impressed upon me how big a deal this was.
And so to see their frustration, and then in contradistinction, understanding that some people didn't want to pitch in to help-- it was very frustrating and honestly just made me very sad for people who I know were really struggling with this.
DAVE JOHNSON: Actually, I had one more question to ask you. You mentioned coming back-- did you, in fact, share your diagnosis with your patients? I mean, I-- when I had cancer and came back, I made a pact with myself that I wasn't going to do that. But then I learned that the nurses were telling patients that I had cancer, and I found that it actually was helpful to share that diagnosis with many of my patients so that they could ask questions and feel that they had someone who really had experienced what they were either going through or about to go through. So I'm wondering how you've shared your diagnosis of COVID with patients, if at all.
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: No, that's a great question. And I may have followed a similar pattern. At first I didn't. I didn't know what to do, to be frank. I didn't know if my saying that would make that patient, in that moment, more stressed out or worried, and I certainly didn't want to add to that. So I took it upon myself to try to make myself as safe to them as possible.
But now that I've had a little chance to reflect on it, I have shared it. And I think for some of my patients, it's been good for them to hear what that experience was like. I think it's also-- Dave, as you probably know, I think it also reminds them we're human, too, and we experience some difficulty with physical health and I think in some ways it allows us to bond in a little bit deeper way.
DAVE JOHNSON: I agree.
PAT LOEHRER: I want to turn the attention over to Adrian now. Adrian, you're in a unique position, obviously one because of your experience in Kenya, and we want to hear about that, but also your responsibility for Indiana University. What some of the listeners may recall is that there was a decision made that you were part of that actually mandated that students in Indiana University be required to have vaccination before they came to school.
We were in Kenya at the time when we heard that there was some consideration about that from the state legislature in terms of how-- mandating that. And eventually, this was a case that in which eight students took this case to cohort that eventually reached to Amy Coney Barrett, who decided to find in favor of Indiana University. It was a landmark decision here.
But tell us a little bit about your experience on the leadership role of COVID and the impact that you see in terms of yourself personally and from the field of the university.
ADRIAN GARDNER: Yeah. Thanks, Pat. I think it's really two different worlds in my mind, in some ways, although clearly linked by this global pandemic. You know, I was just finishing my eight-year stint, essentially, in Kenya in March of 2020 when we got the news that the entire world was about to be declared a level 4 by the State Department. And well, that-- I remember actually talking to Joe Scodro on the phone. And he's like, what the heck does that mean? That's not in our playbook of what we do when things happen and we need to bring trainees home and sort of--
PAT LOEHRER: Scodro being the lead counsel for Indiana University here.
ADRIAN GARDNER: Thank you. Yeah, yeah. So for me-- I mean, obviously I was making a transition back to a US-based career in this position as the Director for the Center for Global Health. But you know, I had a dramatic change in my position, right? I mean, who is going to do global health operations in the middle of a pandemic? Well, nobody, because nobody was traveling.
So we had really shifted all of our Kenya operations to a virtual support. We pulled all our trainees and long-term faculty back, initially. And my own position here is-- got pulled into a leadership role in Indiana University's response to the pandemic, along with three other physician leaders. And we all took on a different component of the response.
So I was involved in the contact tracing, in part because we had some experience with contact tracing and global settings and tuberculosis and HIV. And while the transmission dynamics are obviously quite dramatically different and has different implications, but some of the principles around contact tracing were similar in the sense that contact tracing is not about really a stick, but it's more about extending a carrot and extending the support that allows you then to create an enabling environment-- and a quick phone call, in this case-- to allow people to identify what it is to quarantine and isolate effectively.
To get to the Supreme Court issues and around mandates-- I think it was fairly obvious-- we were part of a restart committee that had been put together by the Dean of the School of Medicine, Jay Hess, and it was fairly noncontroversial among that group that we were going to need vaccine as we marched through this. And we immediately set up a lot of testing infrastructure and what we called mitigation testing at that point of asymptomatic individuals in addition to creating systems that enabled people to-- with symptoms, to enable testing very quickly and to get results back and to get that whole infrastructure in place.
But it was pretty obvious to us-- it was a group of medical, public health, and ethics and legal folks-- that we were going to need a high level of immunity to get back to anything normal, right? And as we began planning for the summer and the fall of 2021, it was like-- it's a no-brainer. I mean, the only way you're going to get high levels of immunity, if you want to bring people back into the same classroom, if you want to have people living in dormitories, if you want to have them engage in the normal activities that college kids want to engage in, then you've got to have a very high level of immunity. And the only way to really achieve that is going to be through vaccine mandates.
And again, it wasn't-- it didn't feel unprecedented, because you have to get a whole bunch of vaccines when you go off to college or when you go to elementary school. And that's really the only way to achieve that high level of coverage that allows us to not have a bunch of measles in our environment. And we still have mumps, despite high levels of coverage.
But yeah, it felt weirdly noncontroversial. But of course, the whole politicization, I think, of the whole response to the pandemic made this more controversial. And clearly, there are people that feel very strongly about it. But I think this-- framing it in a context of personal freedom versus public good has not been particularly healthy for us as a country. I guess I'm not terribly surprised that the Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the preliminary injunction. I think the formal case is still pending, but it's maybe been overtaken by events, because now there are government mandates that are requiring vaccine or regular testing of just about-- lots of different industries and government employees and things.
So I think it was important that we took a stand on this. And I think it has set a precedent, I think, for other universities. There were initially some hospital systems doing the same. But I think it's made it a lot easier to keep moving through industries and health systems with this kind of decision.
PAT LOEHRER: Parenthetically, there's-- this week, they announced the-- we've reached over a million cases of COVID in Indiana. But the lowest county for infectious rate is actually Monroe County, which is where Bloomington is, where Indiana University is. And it's less than half of the rate of the state. And so I think kudos to you and the staff that have done this.
Just maybe briefly, could you reflect on your experiences in Kenya, here in the United States-- lessons learned by you or by the university or by public officials about the contrast? I am reflecting now about a patient I saw today, that-- we were talking about the booster vaccine. And unfortunately, in Kenya, most people haven't gotten their first vaccine, either. So reflect a little bit about the global impact as you've seen personally.
ADRIAN GARDNER: Yeah. So again, I think it's felt like two different worlds, but obviously struggling with the same thing, right? So I think on a global perspective-- so Kenya has-- Kenya got off to a pretty good start because they were kind of late to the game when it came to COVID, and they were able to jump on and learn from some of the lessons about physical distancing and shutting things down that actually enabled them to escape in the beginning.
Of course, there was probably transmission going on behind the scenes that we weren't detecting, and even till now, the numbers that are officially reported are really just the tip of the iceberg. I think know that. Kenya has only reported 250,000 cases and just over 5,000 fatalities nationwide since the beginning of the pandemic. But there are serology studies that suggest that 50%, 60% of the population may have actually been infected-- at least, right? And that's based on blood donor studies and things.
So I mean, I think some of the initial challenges, obviously, around access to PPE-- as we think about health care settings there, which are-- our partnership is based in, as you know. It's just the lack of infection control and the ability to even think about infection control because you're lacking space. As you know, Pat, in many of these wards in low-resource settings, there are two patients in every bed. And one might have active pulmonary TB and one might be getting chemotherapy for breast cancer. And it's less than ideal.
But as you think about how to respond to that, it's pretty hard when you don't have any space, right? I mean, we did a lot here in terms of retooling space and utilizing space that was not being used and putting in negative pressure rooms where they were needed and this kind of thing that just weren't options in Kenya.
One good news was that I think in Kenya, in particular, the testing capacity was able to get an early jump because the HIV infrastructure, PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, had established seven regional laboratories that were obviously running HIV viral loads and so had PCR platforms. And they were able to rapidly retool those and convert them into COVID testing laboratories for PCR.
So that was good, but then never really got to the same point where we need to get to, which is that it's readily accessible to everyone in rural regions and rapid testing in order to inform triage protocols [INAUDIBLE] patients and try to figure out how to develop that. So there's been testing available, but just not in the quantities that were sufficient.
You know, I think we've been able to work across virtual platforms to share knowledge about management and clinical protocol development. That's been another success story. Certainly our partnership is longstanding and so has allowed those relationships that have withstood the test of nonpersonal interaction.
And of course, the biggest elephant in the room now is this issue of vaccine equity, as you pointed out. So about 5% of the population in Kenya has been vaccinated. Part of that is vaccine access. Part of it is probability distribution infrastructure. Think about low resource settings-- many of them do quite well with vaccine delivery, but they're early childhood vaccines, right? So they have whole infrastructure around maternal child health that's set up to do this.
There's not a lot of infrastructure for rapidly mobilizing 50 million adults to try and get them in for a two-shot series. So how do you do that? I mean, yes there are some community assets in terms of community health workers and things, but so far, at least, the vaccine quantities available have not been sufficient to allow that kind of infrastructure to really take over, at least in Kenya. But it holds promise, I think.
But then they also are up against the same, I think-- some of the same challenges that we face here in terms of vaccine misinformation and lack of trust. This is an area where I think trust is really key ingredient in health systems, and I think we've seen it in our own inequalities that have been made very, very obvious in our own country and really, the issue globally. And it's not a new lesson. We knew it from Ebola and other very obvious infectious diseases that have resulted in high degrees of death because of lack of trust.
When I have taken care of patients here and I've had those same experiences that Dave was talking about earlier, where you want to just ask the patient, so why didn't you get vaccinated? As an infectious disease provider, we've been called in to a lot of these cases, and I've taken the opportunity to ask a couple of times-- not in a judgmental way, but trying to set the stage and just-- what is it about the system? And a lot of-- some of it is misinformation. Some of it is this politicization and political bias.
But some of it is just a very subtle mistrust and this notion that you don't feel completely welcomed or resected within the health care setting. And that's enough to just turn it off to this point where, eh, I'm just not ready to do that. And I think that's sometimes more subtle than we appreciate, but it has a huge impact.
DAVE JOHNSON: We're getting close to the end of our time. I want to pivot back, if I may, just for a quick moment to Bryan. This may be an out of-- from left field type of question, but we learned a lot about early chemotherapy from the infectious disease world. We took some of the infectious disease principles and applied them in the early years of chemotherapy.
Do you think there's much to be learned from a precision medicine standpoint from the COVID pandemic? What are you taking away from not just your personal experience but the larger experience, if anything? Or is that just-- is it just too early to say?
BRYAN SCHNEIDER: No, I mean-- I think I've always admired the speed and efficiency with which breakthroughs have happened in infectious disease. And I mean, the idea of a brand new virus coming on board a couple of years ago and coming to the point where we are today shows, I think, real innovation, but the ability to get behind a question and, as a community, answer it well. And I think from that standpoint, that's something that all disciplines, including oncology, can learn.
I certainly think we're seeing more and more intersection, too, with the way we think about treating cancer and its impact on immunity. And so certainly in that way I think there's real connections. But I do think some of the innovations that were brought about from the NCI with the vaccines are going to really also herald in things that will be game-changers in the world of oncology and therapeutics as well.
DAVE JOHNSON: That's great.
PAT LOEHRER: If I can throw in something, too-- I think, Dave, particularly as we talk about global health, many of the cancers that we see in the low-to-middle income countries are caused by viruses. One of the number one causes of cancer in sub-Saharan Africa is cervical cancer. We could eradicate that by getting vaccines out there.
In terms of the lessons learned, I think the lessons learned in oncology is that we need to deal more with population health and with prevention than we do with the treatment towards the end of the life. And hopefully that will be a lesson that we can take home with us around the world.
ADRIAN GARDNER: Yeah, and Pat, I think we do need to do better as a global community in terms of sharing vaccine and getting manufacturing up, and not just for vaccines but PPE and therapeutics. It's just not fair, the world we live in now. And at least we all know that and we take it for granted in some ways. But it shouldn't be this unfair, right? And that's been part of the problem globally, and it's part of the problem in the United States.
DAVE JOHNSON: Yeah.
PAT LOEHRER: But the tail end also is access to drugs for chemotherapy, too, and to have radiation available for all these patients. So it is-- this access is an important part of health equity globally. And I think it behooves all of us to be involved with this mission.
DAVE JOHNSON: Well, again, we've come to the end of our time. And we want to thank all of our listeners, but most of all, we really want to thank Bryan and Adrian for a wonderful interview. We really appreciate your time and you sharing your experiences with us.
Thanks again to the listeners for tuning in to Oncology Etc. This is an ASCO educational podcast. We want to talk really about anything and everything, so if you have an idea for a topic or a guest, we invite you to share that with us and email us at education@ASCO.org. So thanks again. And remember, Pat, I before E except after C.
PAT LOEHRER: [LAUGHS] Well, I'll see you later, then.
DAVE JOHNSON: No, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Eight, leisure, sovereign, weight, weird, foreign, vein, neighbor-- apparently it doesn't work.
My second-grade teacher taught me that rule, and it's just wrong.
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