For New Orleans emergency nurse practitioner Carolyn Storck, putting others' needs ahead of her own has always been second-nature — and nothing was going to change that, not even surgery during a pandemic.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic in March, Storck tells PEOPLE she had to undergo surgery after developing a severe case of Achilles tendonitis and a Haglund's deformity.
Less than two weeks later, Storck — who is in her 40s — was back on the frontlines caring for COVID-19 patients, while also managing to keep the weight off her injured leg during 12-hour shifts by using a hands-free crutch.
"I might just be crazy, but it really did not feel that out of the norm," she says. "I felt an obligation to my colleagues, and when people started calling out sick and we started looking for back-ups and on-call lists, there still was a gap."
"If there is a gap in the shift or something needs to be done, I think all of us have the mindset of you step up and you do it," she adds. "You've got to take care of people. You've got to be here, you have to get things done."
Prior to her surgery on March 6, Storck — who is a former military major — says she had been dealing with pain in her Achilles tendon for three years.
"I looked like a 90-year-old woman every time I would stand up because I had to stretch out," she explains. "I had to stop running ... and any time I would have a long shift, I would go home and not want to do anything because it hurt."
After consulting several doctors, completing physical therapy, and trying "every other trick under the sun," Storck says she had no other choice but to get surgery.
"[My specialist] said there was no way that it was going to get better without surgery," she recalls, noting how she was told that the Haglund’s deformity, which is a painful enlargement on the back of the heel, was also getting worse.
"Just based on the calcaneus deformity, my specialist said it was just going to keep rubbing until she could shave everything down," she adds.
Going into the procedure, Storck expected to be out of work for at least four weeks per her doctor's recommendation. (Patients typically take up to eight weeks to recover from the surgery, according to Stone Clinic.)
However, as it turned out, the nurse practitioner didn't even make it to half of that time before feeling an obligation to get back on the frontlines.
"We hit that really bad two or three weeks in New Orleans, where we were having a lot of patients with COVID, a lot of hospitalizations, a lot of people on ventilators," she recalls. "Everything blew up."
Just 12 days after her surgery, Storck was back in action, working in the emergency departments at New Orleans VA Medical Center and the Ochsner Medical Center.
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Needing to keep all weight off her injured leg during her 12-hour shifts, she relied on the iWALK 2.0, which functions like a temporary lower leg and allowed her to effectively move around the hospital and outdoor COVID-19 tent testing areas.
"It was absolutely amazing to keep up my mobility," she explains. "It was very stable and I was changing different terrains without a problem. I came back, did my job, and was able to pick up the oncology directorship as needed to support the staff and the patients."
"I am convinced that I would not have been able to work the shifts I did and continue doing what I did with any other device," she adds. "I mean, even a scooter would not have given me the level of mobility like this."
After returning to the frontlines, Brad Hunter, the President of iWALKFree, Inc, issued a statement and called Storck "a true hero" who "epitomizes the strength and determination of the people working on the front line in the fight against coronavirus."
Though Storck was moved by his kind words, she admits she also felt "a little embarrassed" hearing that, crediting her bond with her colleagues for inspiring her to get back to work so quickly.
"I think we're all just doing our jobs. This is what we went into medicine to do," she says. "It's nice to be acknowledged, but it's also, you do what you got to do."
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"You take care of your colleagues as much as you take care of your patients, you step in and do things," she adds. "If it's not going to be me filling in, it's going to be someone else working double shifts. With my colleagues, they've saved me many times when something's happened. So, at least in my world, my colleagues would do the same thing for me."
Today, three months after her surgery, Storck says she's "got both legs back" and is able to walk around in sneakers, though she's still experiencing "a little bit of pain."
"I'm still in the rehab stage. I'm still getting some strength back," she explains. "But overall, things are progressing really well, and I'm very happy I did the surgery."
Storck also looks forward to the day she can get back to doing the one exercise she's always loved: running.
"My hope is that one day I can run again," she says. "I still see myself as a runner, even though I haven't done it in three years. My specialist is going to eventually do the other [leg], and my hope is that it's actually cured enough that I can get back to running again."
As of Monday, there have been over 2.3 million cases and at least 120,128 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to the New York Times. In Lousiana, at least 50,352 cases and 3,117 deaths have been reported, according to the Times.
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