“Incredible progress” – Wendy reflects on how much has changed in her 20 years of amazing research at OIC but adds “I’m staying until we find a cure for HIV.”
Every field sees change over time, but not as much as the field of HIV. Twenty years ago there were few medications with many side effects. Today, there are one-pill once-daily regimens with virtually no side effects. We’re even gearing up for a new HIV vaccine study! The amazing research and rapid evolution of HIV medication is nothing short of miraculous. And one woman has seen it all. Wendy Wert, MA, CCRC, Medical Assistant and Certified Clinical Research Coordinator. She’s been with Orlando Immunology Center since the beginning – 20 years ago.
The Birth of Orlando Immunology Center
Let’s go back 20 years. A young doctor saw the horrible effects HIV had on the Orlando community. New medications were being studied in bigger cities. But it took years for approval and then to be available in Orlando. He realized that expanding clinical research could bring innovative, life-changing treatment options much sooner to Orlando. So he worked hard, collaborated with partners and made a plan. Then they bought the clinical research department of a local doctor, Dr. Goodgame, and Wendy was a Medical Assistant there. That young, hard-working doctor with a vision was Dr. Edwin DeJesus. And on July 1st, 1999, Orlando Immunology Center was born.
“Thank You, Wendy! We are very blessed to have been able to overcome all the hurdles we have confronted, and to pass the tests of time. Most amazingly, we have done it as a family! I deeply thank you for your trust and commitment.”
– Edwin DeJesus, MD, FACP, FIDSA, OIC’s Medical Director
Research Back Then
Wendy has an exciting background as an Emergency Medical Technician. But something was calling for her to stay. The office was small and felt like family. She loves the challenges each new study brings plus directly helping people. Twenty years ago treatment was very different. “Back then, people would take multiple pills several times a day and deal with side effects.” Wendy said. “The stigma back then was unbelievable. You can’t imagine. Education and comforting patients is a huge part of my job. I love it!” Each new study researched safer, more effective treatments with fewer side effects. The results over time are extraordinary. Today there are many treatment options including one-pill, once-daily regimens with few side effects. “Our OIC family is amazing. It’s really cool to have patients come back years later, happy and healthy and saying it all started with you guys”.
“You are THE original employee! You’ve helped nurture our “OIC family” culture and I appreciate your loyalty, laughter and hard work. You’ve helped thousands of patients over the years and have lovingly become known as the “Naive Study Queen.”
– Federico Hinestrosa, MD, FACP, FIDSA, OIC’s Associate Medical Director
Naive Study Queen
Sometimes its challenging to get into care. “OIC offers another option, easy access to amazing research. Most cities don’t have this option. Volunteering is simple. Studies provide medication and related medical visits at no charge plus generally compensate for time and travel” Wendy said. She continues “At OIC everything is a team effort. But I especially love being the part of the team that works with people newly diagnosed”.
So its no surprise then that Wendy is known affectionately as the “Naive Study Queen”. Referencing that many of the studies she’s worked on seek newly diagnosed volunteers that haven’t been on HIV treatment. They are considered “Treatment Naive“. As a Clinical Research Coordinator, Wendy is on the front line working with tens of thousands of people over the years. She has skills that make her exceptionally suited for this role. It takes knowledge, empathy, meticulous record keeping, special communication skills, passion and – when necessary – tough love.
She’s often the first person someone meets after receiving a reactive HIV test. “It can be a scary, traumatic time for the person and their family.” Wendy said. “However, its critical to take time, listen, and answer all of their questions. Then educate them about HIV and all of their options for HIV care.” OIC always has between 20-30 studies going on. Lastly, she reviews options and helps figure out which one is best for them. She continues, “Patients like that I’m able to spend extra time with them. Sometimes just to listen. Other times to answer questions about HIV related issues. They want to learn directly from a medical clinician and can’t get that anywhere else. It’s rewarding to watch someone’s journey from detectable to undetectable”. So, it’s an honor to be crowned “Naive Study Queen”.
“You Saved My Daughter’s Life”
“Really listening to patients to address their needs is just as critical today as it was then”. She had a patient that was a father. During his visit he wasn’t focusing as usual. She asked and he said his daughter had had a fever for a month. Wendy insisted he take her to the emergency room. However the doctors sent them home saying it was a virus and would pass. He came in shortly after clearly distraught. He explained and that the fever persisted. After that, Wendy explained why and how to advocate for his daughter. Then insisted he take her back to the same emergency room. After numerous tests they found out she had leukemia but it was detected early and treatable. The next time he saw Wendy he sobbed – “If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have known what to do. You saved my daughter life! ”
“Mom to Mom, thank you”
It’s common for people bring family and friends to their medical visits so Wendy frequently meets mothers. She remembers one case when a mother and son came in and his HIV test was reactive. She thought HIV was a death sentence and was beside herself with fear. As a result, she felt her precious son’s life was over. He was only 19. Wendy took time to educate about new treatments and that people with HIV live just as long as everyone else. After that, the mother was still tense, skeptical and wanted to know her son was in good hands. Wendy said “I have a son that’s 19. I promise I will take just as good care of your son as I would mine own.” She immediately relaxed and wept. Relief washed over her “I believe you. You have no idea the relief you’ve brought me…Mom to Mom, thank you. ”
Amazing Research has Grown into Today’s OIC’s Family
Today, we are one of the most recognized and successful HIV prevention, HIV, Hepatitis and STD centers in the country. Virtually every HIV medication on the market today plus all of the Hepatitis C cures have been studied at OIC at some point. And its experts like Wendy who helped us get things started and achieve so much. Above all, she nurtured our OIC family and help cultivate our open, nonjudgmental, inclusive environment. “We’ve always been a safe place for everyone, strait, gay, LGBT, young or old. It’s just who we are. I love being a part of our OIC family and the amazing research we do. It’s humbling to think that medication studied here has saved lives all over the world” Wendy said. “We’ve made amazing progress in 20 years and the future looks brighter than ever.”
Then adds “I’m staying until we find a cure for HIV.”