Wendy Cort was among the first Novant Health team members to volunteer at the health care system’s COVID-19 community screening assessment centers set up in March.
As a former critical care nurse, she was prepared when asked to step into that fast-paced world. “I loved being back in the environment of helping people and trying to settle their fears,” said Cort, now manager of education and training for Novant Health Medical Group. “People were very scared.”
Things were changing by the minute. “We were building the plane as we were flying it,” said Cort, who has more than 30 years of experience. “There were days when cars were wrapped around the building, and we would see hundreds of people through their car windows.”
This was only the beginning – of the pandemic and of Cort’s long journey.
In fact, the whole year has been a tumultuous one for Cort and her family. She was hospitalized for 21 days, diagnosed with COVID-19 and is now among “long-haulers” – former COVID-19 patients whose symptoms linger for months.
Although she was initially apprehensive, she recently got the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. “As a health care worker, I want to do everything I can to try to move past this time for everybody and be able to support other healthcare workers who were hesitant about getting the vaccine,” she said. “I have an elderly mom, who I help care for, and I want to protect her.”
“I wanted to do it to help science, too,” she continued. “I thought somebody like me, who went through a really bad case, would be a good ‘test case’ to show how the vaccine works for post-COVID patients.”
Cort had a fever the night she got the vaccine, which is among reactions some people can expect. (Physicians often say it’s one way to tell the vaccine is working.) Within 48 hours, she was back at work.
It was mild compared to what she endured this spring.
An early case of COVID-19
After about two weeks of working at the screening centers, Cort began to feel lethargic and run a low-grade fever. She went to a Novant Health Go Health Urgent Care Center and was tested for both flu and COVID-19. Although both tests were negative, she wanted to protect her family from possible exposure.
“I quarantined myself in a room in my home,” she said. “My family would place my meals and drinks in a cooler outside the room.” The wife and mother of three had two of her children – a 25-year-old and an 18-year-old – at home at the time. She isolated herself from her children and her husband, Adam, to protect them – but stayed in contact virtually with her primary care physician, Dr. Lori Taylor of Novant Health Cotswold Medical Clinic.
On March 27, Cort’s symptoms had grown markedly worse. She began experiencing shortness of breath and a persistent fever – as high as 103. Adam purchased a pulse oximeter – a small device, available at drugstores, you place on a finger to measure oxygen saturation. “The pulse oximeter showed my oxygenation level was in the 80s. A normal reading should be about 96% to 100%,” Cort said. “I knew then I was in trouble.”
Cort was advised to seek medical attention at the nearest emergency room.
The critical care nurse needs critical care
She walked into Novant Health Matthews Medical Center emergency department where she was diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs. She had to be admitted to the ICU immediately. Shortly after, she was told she’d need to be sedated and placed on a ventilator.
“My only lifeline at this very scary moment was the nurse caring for me,” she said. “I do not recall his name, but I do remember telling him how scared I was and asked if he could hold my hand.”
A patient on a ventilator is placed face down, known as proning. It’s an awkward position, but it gives the lungs more room to expand. While the medical team treated Cort as if she had COVID, they weren’t certain of it until after she was sedated, intubated and had been in the hospital for a while.
Three days after being admitted to Matthews, Cort’s condition worsened and she was transferred to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. She suffered multiple complications, including a collapsed right lung which required a chest tube, blood clots on her left side and more.
“Doctors were preparing my family for the worst,” she said.
Cort’s pulmonologist, Dr. Wheeler Jervis, recommended a treatment that was still being tested in COVID-19 patients. Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is used to pump and oxygenate the patient's blood outside the body, replacing the function of the lungs and heart. She was the first COVID-19 patient at Presbyterian to receive ECMO and may have been the first in North Carolina, Jervis said.
Despite complications and nearly 15 days on the ventilator, Cort’s condition gradually improved. “I was miraculously able to be removed from the ventilator,” she said. “Several days later, I was discharged.”
Healing may take time
After three weeks in the hospital, Cort came home and began the long recovery process. “I had to learn to walk again, dress myself, feed myself and even swallow,” she said. “It was a very scary feeling how quickly I lost my functionality and ability to perform day-to-day tasks.”
She immediately began physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. “My physical therapists were incredible,” she said. “In a matter of five days, I was able to walk a few steps with a walker and started to sit up in a chair all day.”
Cort has worked hard at recovery; however, seven months later, she continues to experience side effects including fatigue, muscle weakness, brain fog, concentration issues and more. She also experienced hair loss, as well as three months of not being able to taste or smell.
While she regained both about two months after leaving the hospital, she now occasionally smells things that aren’t there. “A lot of COVID patients experience a phantom smell,” she said. “Many complain of smelling burning cigarettes. I have the intense smell – I don't know how to describe it – but it makes me nauseous. I started putting peppermint oil on a cotton ball and keeping it next to me to get that smell out of my brain.”
Cort found a Facebook page – Survivor Corps – started by a COVID-19 survivor that now has more than 126,000 members. “The site provided me with such relief,” she said. “For example, when I was experiencing hair loss, there were hundreds of people on the site experiencing the same symptom.”
The site is also a place for people to share their grief, so Cort is careful about the time she spends on the site. The sadness can become too much.
Cort credits her extraordinary medical team, and her own determination, with her survival. For her, staying active has been key. “I think you have to keep moving, no matter how bad you feel when you wake up in the morning.”
Photo caption: Wendy Cort (center, blue sweater) and family.