She Survived 9/11 and COVID-19. This Is What She Wants You to Know.
“Osama bin Laden didn’t kill me. I’m not dying from this virus.” Read how Wendy Lanski, Horizon employee, fought through illness and isolation to live to share her story.
Wendy Lanski knows what it means to be a survivor. Nineteen years ago, she escaped the World Trade Center on 9/11. This past spring, she stared down a serious COVID-19 infection and willed herself to stay alive.
Lanski spent 13 days in Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, battling a coronavirus infection that made it impossible for her to breathe on her own. On her hospital bed, isolated from her family, she didn’t know if she’d reach her fiftieth birthday this June, a milestone she had long fretted over but would have then given anything to see.
“I was keenly aware I was dying,” said Lanski, a manager of provider partnerships at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ). For five days, she used a specialized high flow oxygen machine while her lungs were wracked with pneumonia. “COVID is not like the flu. It’s not like anything I have ever experienced,” she added.
This is the message she wants anyone still skeptical of COVID-19’s deadly power to hear clearly. As stay-at-home restrictions ease in New Jersey, and people gather in groups and think about not wearing face masks, Lanski knows first-hand that practicing extra caution is not an overreaction.
“This disease will kill you, it will kill your family, and it will change your life forever,” said Lanski.
How it all started
In mid-March, Lanski came down with a low-grade fever and a dry cough that she first thought was due to her allergies. But a few days later, she put on some perfume and she couldn’t smell it. “I was so upset because I’d just purchased that bottle and I was going to throw it in the waste basket,” she said. But then she was cutting onions for dinner and couldn’t smell those either.
She’d seen on the news that an inability to smell was a symptom of COVID-19. She went to see her doctor at Summit Medical Group for a coronavirus test. Her husband, who also had a fever and a cough, came to get tested, too. He has paraplegia, and she knew underlying conditions like his could make the disease worse.
A few days later, when her fever spiked to 104 degrees, she and her husband went to the ER. She was told her symptoms weren’t bad enough for her to be hospitalized. But after a weekend of feeling miserable and not eating or drinking, that all changed.
Lanski woke up on March 24 unable to breathe. She and her husband were immediately admitted to Saint Barnabas, even though the results of her COVID-19 test still hadn’t come through.
Fighting in her own way
After Lanski’s oxygen level steadily decreased over the next day, her team of doctors decided she needed to go on a ventilator. Lanski had other ideas.
“I’d read in the news about patients being put on a ventilator. There was a good shot I might not come off it,” said Lanski, who had chronic lung problems ever since 9/11 that put her at higher risk of complications. “I told them to come up with another plan.”
Lanski's respiratory pulmonologist decided to try using a high-flow oxygen therapy. Since the intensive care unit was full, Lanski was placed in her own room with the oxygen machine. Her husband was in a different room in the hospital, “but he might as well have been in a different country,” she said. She could text her husband, and because her oxygen mask prevented her from communicating with the hospital staff, they would give him updates about her condition. He’s the one who told her, by text, that she had pneumonia.
It was about half-way through her stay when her test results finally arrived: Yes, she had COVID-19.
Lanski credits the doctors and nurses at Saint Barnabas and Summit Medical – who just happen to be two of Horizon BCBNJ’s provider partners that Lanski has helped manage in the past – with supporting her through the anxious days. She didn’t know if she’d survive and worried who would take care of her husband.
“One nurse, who had been working 30 years, said she knew which patients were fighters,” Lanski recalls. “She told me, ‘You’re not going to die.’”
Eventually, her oxygen levels steadied, then rose. After nearly two weeks, Lanski and her husband were discharged on the same day.
A long recovery that hasn’t ended
Lanski thought she’d needed only a few more days to get back to normal. But, like so many things about her journey, her recovery didn’t go as planned.
“I just didn’t feel like me,” Lanski said. She’d developed a rapid heartbeat, forcing her to wear a heart monitor for 30 days. Even the texture of her hair had changed. She had to spend about ten weeks on short-term disability before finally going back to work from home on June 1.
Lanski still worries about going out in crowds, fearful she might get the infection again or even pass it on to others. Science hasn’t provided any definitive answers on people’s immunity to the disease. “There are still so many unknowns,” Lanski said.
But just as she did following 9/11, Lanski sees it as her mission to support the survivors and, in this case, educate others on the seriousness of COVID-19. Sharing her story allows her to do both.
She sympathizes with people who are tired of staying home and taking all the necessary safety precautions to prevent catching COVID-19. But wearing a mask is a small price to pay to try to avoid an illness that has claimed close to 13,000 New Jerseyans.
“We all have a social responsibility not to just live for ourselves and for others, but for all the people who aren’t living anymore,” Lanski said.