There are many emotions that come with hearing your 2-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
But one that Cortnee Whitlock remembers most viscerally is the feeling of frustration. Appointment after appointment, she often felt confused and dismissed by the people in charge of her daughter’s care.
When tests were run, the results were rarely explained in a way she could understand. As someone who dropped out of high school as a sophomore, comprehending medical and health insurance terminology was overwhelming and difficult.
“It was so frustrating feeling like there were no answers,” she said.
So Whitlock decided to join the quality improvement committee at her Portland-area hospital, hoping to offer feedback and help bridge the communication gap between patients and the medical community.
“I wanted to make a difference,” she said. “I already know what it’s like to be the mom with a kid with (a) chronic illness and not have support.”
Ten years later, Whitlock has transformed her passion of advocating for families and patients into a career as a patient experience coordinator at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria. In the fall, she will begin her master’s degree studies in patient safety and health care quality at Johns Hopkins University.
“My hope is to be a national leader in how health care can work,” she said. “There’s room for great improvement in reforming policies.”
Whitlock feels honored to be serving in the position she does, but is sometimes in disbelief given where her journey began, she said.
At 7 years old, Whitlock was diagnosed with epilepsy. The condition delayed her learning abilities, which led to her falling behind in school.
“Whether it was sounds or lights or stress, I had a hard time processing ... those sensitivities,” she said. “It’s like a computer acting up. My body would shut down and restart. I basically needed to reboot my brain.”
Mix poor performance in school with typical teenage rebellion, and the dynamics for family tension were born.
One day, the tension came to a head, when her parents received a notice that she had ditched school for the morning. The fight ended in a physical altercation, and at 16 she decided to pack up some of her things and leave her Northern California home.
At the time, it made more sense to leave than try to express what was bothering her to parents who she felt weren’t going to listen, she said.
“I run away from (situations) I realize I don’t have control over,” Whitlock said. “That’s definitely a life theme.”
At first, Whitlock found stability. She got a job busing tables at a golf course. She lived with an elderly woman, and in exchange Whitlock was her caretaker.
But shortly after, her housing situation became upended and she became homeless. For a year, she lived out of her car and got ready for work in the bathroom of a Burger King.
“At first I thought it was an adventure,” she said. “But by the third or fourth night, you feel so alone and worthless. Like, what has possibly gotten me to the point where I can’t find decent shelter for myself?”
Whitlock eventually drifted to San Francisco, where she began to experiment with alcohol and drugs. She fell into a hard-partying lifestyle, which at times she subsidized by dealing marijuana.
One day, she got a tip from a friend that the police were looking for her. She took the moment as a wake-up call and decided to pack her bags and move to Wyoming — the last place she remembered feeling normal in her childhood.
“I knew I needed to start over,” she said.
Whitlock moved in with her brother, where she found structure in acting as a nanny to her nephew. She sobered up, and eventually decided to enroll in massage school.
But while she was traveling to Arizona, Whitlock made a stop in McMinnville to visit an old friend. She fell in love with Oregon and decided to stay — for the next 20 years.
“I went back to ‘What am I going to do?’” she said.
She signed up with a temp agency in Salem, doing an assortment of administration jobs, hopping around friends’ couches and hotel rooms.
“I tried really hard to not go back to sleeping in my car,” she joked.
At one of those jobs, Whitlock met the man who eventually became her husband. They had two children before divorcing five years later.
Back to school
The separation added another layer of complication to taking care of a child with a chronic illness. After her experiences with her daughter’s care at the hospital, she decided it was time to go back to school.
But during her placement exams, the effects of dropping out at 16 were starting to sink in.
“To realize as a 25-year-old my English comprehension was that of a sixth-grader was a big blow ... but also very motivating,” she said.
She eventually transferred from Portland Community College to Oregon State University, splitting her time between school and working as a certified nursing assistant.
Seven years later, she had her bachelor’s degree in human development and family science.
“It took me a long time to convince myself I was worthy of doing that,” she said.
After graduating in 2016, Whitlock saw the job posting in Astoria, and decided to make the leap. She now works as the liaison between the medical staff and patients she wishes she would have had 10 years ago.
“I feel very honored to have the position I have,” she said.