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Dr. Noemi Doohan
Solana Beach resident Dr. Noemi Doohan has been fighting COVID-19 in San Diego County since shortly after the pandemic began. Courtesy photo
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Scripps doctor reflects on COVID-19 fight, personal battle with cancer

SOLANA BEACH — For the past year, one of the few things Americans can agree upon is the bravery and sacrifice of our frontline healthcare workers, particularly those in hospitals fighting against COVID-19.

One of those medical workers is Solana Beach resident Dr. Noemi Doohan.

Doohan works at Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego as a primary care physician. She also works as the Scripps Chula Vista Family Medicine Residency Program’s assistant director, mentoring new residents in the program.

When Doohan moved to Solana Beach in June 2020, the pandemic had already begun. Still, it wasn’t until a November surge in coronavirus cases that hospitals needed her and fellow healthcare professionals more urgently.

“At the time, we as a residency program were all hands-on deck,” Doohan said. “Faculty, residents, we knew all of us were going to have to really run into this fire, so to speak while protecting ourselves and being safe but take care of our patients.”

Then, in early December of last year, Doohan received news that would come as a shock to anyone under normal circumstances, let alone in the middle of a worsening global pandemic.

On December 9, while she was in a clinic working with patients, Doohan got the news she was in the early stages of breast cancer discovered after her annual screening.

“It was, first of all, a complete shock,” Doohan said. “Second of all, I had no idea how I could stay home at this point while we were all running into the fire to save lives. It was a moment of incredible conflict for me.”

But as doctors often counsel their patients, Doohan had to care for herself first. And despite her desire to continue helping COVID-19 patients, Doohan was forced to take a personal step back.

The next question for Doohan, along with millions of Americans facing cancer diagnoses, was: Where do I turn to next?

As a relatively new addition to Scripps, Doohan was unsure where to go, a period of time she described as a “fear of the unknown” and a concept relatable to others in her situation.

Luckily for Doohan, the Scripps MD Anderson Cancer Center was not only well equipped to handle her diagnosis, but it offered Doohan a chance to continue helping those in need during her time away from the COVID-19 fight.

Typically, for someone diagnosed with early stages of breast cancer, the patient undergoes a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous mass followed by four weeks of radiation therapy on the entire breast — totaling 20 radiation treatments.

However, Doohan’s doctors informed her she would be eligible for a clinical trial that looks to test a new way to treat early-stage breast cancer. The “OPAL 2” trial, managed by MD Anderson Cancer Center and National Cancer Institute, provides higher doses of radiation to a more focused breast area over a shorter time period.

The trial evaluates whether specialists can shorten radiation time to reduce side effects, allowing cancer patients a return to their lives as quickly and safely as possible.

It didn’t take long for her to decide whether or not to participate.

“I instantly knew that it was a way for me to be of service during a time when I couldn’t be on the frontlines,” Doohan said. “And so, I immediately said yes.”

During the trial, Doohan received 15 radiation treatments focused strictly on the breast area affected by cancer cells. Doohan received radiation treatments five days per week for three weeks.

Regarding her participation in the trial, Doohan believes that everyone has a role to play in public health, and not just treating patients or administering vaccines during a pandemic.

“So, for me, it felt like a blessing that even though I was being pulled back from the frontline, I was being given this opportunity that I could be of service for other women that would have breast cancer in the future,” Doohan said. “It gave me a sense of meaning to my cancer diagnosis.”

Doohan’s treatments have gone exceedingly well and she returned to in-person work on March 22.

“It just was great to get dressed for work,” she said. “To go in with my badge and my stethoscope and be around my wonderful colleagues again.”

But when Doohan returned, the hospital was very different from when she left in December amid COVID-19 cases reaching all-time highs. She returns to work with three vaccines now available to patients and with fewer hospitalizations due to the virus.

“We’re really seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic right now,” Doohan said. “When I left to be treated it was a very scary time. We didn’t have the vaccine yet and in fact, when I was back in the hospital we were doing some vaccinations. So that for me as a health officer was an extremely happy moment.”

Outside of the hospital, Doohan spends a lot of her free time enjoying Solana Beach, walking her dog Lily, a Hungarian vizsla, around San Elijo Lagoon or swimming laps at Lomas Santa Fe swimming pool.

“I’m so grateful to be living in beautiful Solana Beach which has been such a healing environment for me with a wonderful community. So I have everything supporting me to help me feel excellent,” Doohan said. “I’m a big believer in the healing power of nature so to be surrounded by such beauty, and such nice neighbors, it really is something that helps you get through a hard time.”