Monday, October 18, 2010

Remembering a very special day

One year ago today, all four of my children and seven of their friends ran a Marathon to raise money for Hepatitis C research. All 11 completed the marathon and it was a beautiful fall day. They had been working on it all summer - behind my back - and wanted to surprise me, and boy did they ever! They mailed letters out to their friends, my friends, family and former co-workers. Overall they raised over $3,000 to fund research on HCV. I will never forget that special day; they asked that people write me a note along with their donation so that they could pass it on to me to provide encouragement. I kept all those notes and they meant a lot. It was very humbling.

For those of you who don't know much about HCV, I thought I'd do a little Hepatitis 101 here. There are three forms of hepatitis, which are all viral illnesses.
Hepatitis A is the most common form of hepatitis. It is caused by eating contaminated foods or drinking water contaminated by the virus. Most people pick up the disease when traveling out of the country - but there is a vaccination against it, which is often given when the traveler is going to a "high-risk" area. This is the type of hepatitis most old-timers call "the yellow jaundice" because it causes very acute illness and yellowing of the skin and eyes. Hep A causes acute, severe illness marked by vomiting, diarrhea, yellowing of skin & eyes and fever. It is a self-limiting form of hepatitis; once you are over it, it doesn't come back (much like having a cold). However, it does cause permanent damage that renders a person unable to donate blood in the future. It is transmitted by the fecal--oral route and is quite uncommon in the U.S., but was common prior to 1940's.

Hepatitis B is much different. It is a bloodborne pathogen, transmitted blood-to-blood, but mostly through sexual transmission. Hep B is less common because there is a vaccination for it that is required for pretty much everyone nowadays. The vaccination is a series of 3 injections and all children must have the series prior to beginning school. All health care workers are also required to get the vaccinations for Hep B. It is considered a sexually transmitted disease. You will rarely find anyone in the U.S. with Hepatitis B.

Hepatitis C (formerly known as Non-A Non-B Hepatitis) is a bloodborne disease transmitted blood-to-blood. It is not considered to be sexually transmitted, however researchers are unable to prove it can't be transmitted sexually. The most common modes of transmission are sharing of needles between IV drug abusers, tattoos and body piercings, receiving a blood transmission prior to 1993 and occupational hazard of needlestick by healthcare workers. I believe I contracted HCV sometime in the 1980's when nurses did not wear gloves and we did not know about bloodborne pathogens; HIV/AIDS was unheard of and we simply were not careful. Most nurses who practiced prior to 1987 were not aware of the dangers and hospital practices were not protective. HCV is more common than HIV now and only 50% of all infected people can be cured. Some people acquire HCV and their immune system rids them of the virus on first pass. Those who do contract the virus usually do not become symptomatic for decades - usually within 20-30 years. We do not routinely screen people for HCV in the U.S., even those in "high risk" groups. In my case, I did not know I had it until I became very ill in 2005 and blood tests confirmed HCV. Symptoms usually begin to show up once the liver is so damaged it is no longer functioning properly. spouse and all 4 kids needed to be tested since we lived together and were not careful around each other's blood AND I had 3 children during the 1980's - putting them at risk for acquiring the disease through childbirth (which is rare). I am so thankful that all 5 tested negative for the disease. And, since my only risk factor was occupational I am certain I contracted it via accidental needlestick. I had sustained at least a dozen during the 1980's.

So today I am thinking about my amazing family with gratefulness that I did not pass this disease on to them and also thinking about the many people with HCV who do not yet know they have the disease. HCV silently attacks your liver until it says, "STOP" and if the damage is too great, you are most likely to have a rough future ahead of you. And for those of you who feel more "sorry" for me because I acquired this disease by taking are of the sick, I wish to say this: It does not matter how the disease is acquired; NOBODY deserves to suffer from this illness, regardless of their risk factors. My worth is not more than any other person's.