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My name is Sherry Tierney, and I am 65 years old. I am a devoted wife to my husband of 41 years, mother to 3 adult boys, and retired elementary school teacher of 30 years. My excellent health record was shattered at age 50 when I was diagnosed with HCV, which had been attacking my liver—secretly and without any symptoms—for decades. After the diagnosis and a short treatment period, I rapidly entered liver failure, and my only option was a liver transplant.
We think I contracted the virus from a blood bank in 1977, when I was 21 years old. In my years of routine annual physicals, neither the virus nor any indication of liver disease ever showed up because my physicians never included a liver panel in my routine bloodwork or recommended HCV screening, despite my known risk factor of having received a blood transfusion. My dermatologist discovered that I had liver damage and HCV infection through bloodwork after I consulted him on the emergence of several small, red dots on my upper chest. It was a total shock.
A Difficult Road
When I was diagnosed, my gastroenterologist prescribed the harsh therapy of weekly interferon injections and daily ribavirin pills, which I received without success for 6 months. It was a grueling and difficult experience, as I was trying to handle the feelings of being afraid, confused, depressed, angry, and very sad. Due to ascites (ie, fluid buildup) in my abdominal area, I made weekly trips to the hospital for a paracentesis procedure to remove the fluid buildup and relieve the pain.
Another issue I had to deal with was the false perception that HCV was just a problem for people with drug or alcohol addiction. Today, we know there are many ways to contract the virus.
During my ordeal, I made sure that I ate a healthy diet, stayed hydrated, took my meds on time, and rested as much as possible. I cut out all processed foods, began daily juicing of fruits and vegetables, and watched my daily salt and sugar intake. I followed every instruction my doctors gave me without fail.
During weeks of evaluation to become a candidate for a liver transplant, I experienced 3 comas, severe hepatic encephalopathy, extreme weight loss, severe leg cramps, unrelenting itching, ascites, and 6 months in and out of the hospital. I then received a transjugular intrahepatic portosystemic shunt procedure, which my doctor recommended to raise my Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score from 13—where it had been holding steady—to 23. I needed a MELD score of 21 or higher to be at the top of the transplant list. Soon after that procedure, I received the phone call that I had been praying so hard for. A very caring and loving family made the decision to save lives by donating their loved one’s organs after a terrible incident. My donor family saved me and 5 other people in need of an organ transplant, and I received a new liver on February 11, 2008.
However, with my new liver in place, HCV was still in my bloodstream, and my new liver was threatened. I went through 16 months of more interferon injections and ribavirin oral therapy—the only available HCV therapy at the time—without success. Finally, in 2015, I was able to take a new curative oral direct-acting antiviral therapy, which was active against my HCV type, and I was clear of the virus in 4 days with no side effects. I am overjoyed to this day!
A Call to Action
Anyone who has been diagnosed with HCV needs to seek treatment. The virus is not going to disappear, even when symptoms are not present. It is a silent killer, and once symptoms do appear, most people are already in end stages of liver failure. HCV will destroy your liver—but it is curable, and the treatments today are even easier than in years past.
My team of doctors helped me through every step of my horrific journey. They made sure I received all information regarding the virus; resources for support; informative handouts regarding nutrition, exercise, and rest; resource books; and online support connections.
The choice that my donor family made has—in a very real and profound way—changed my life and my family’s life forever. I now have a second chance, which will give me the opportunity to live longer to enjoy my family and friends, attend important life events, and dedicate time to supporting and helping others fighting HCV, as well as the many other liver diseases people experience today.
Since my transplant surgery, I have had this feeling of eternal gratefulness that urged me to think of ways I can give back or pay it forward. After training to be a qualified volunteer for the Donor Network of Arizona, I began donating time to donor drives, where we encourage people to register to be organ donors. I also volunteer with the American Liver Foundation (ALF) to raise funds through various fundraisers for liver disease research and public awareness.
In 2014, I was asked to be a member of the ALF’s National Patient Advisory Committee for the West Coast. My husband and I attend the ALF’s “On the Hill” Advocacy Day each spring at the Capitol with fellow National Patient Advisory Committee members from the East and West Coasts. We attend appointments with elected officials of each state regarding liver disease public awareness and research funding. It is a great feeling to see our hard work paying off with heightened public awareness, more testing, and an HCV cure resulting from the research funding for which we have advocated over many years.
Have you screened every patient in your care for HCV infection, regardless of the presence or absence of perceived risk factors? Do you encourage your colleagues to ensure that all of their patients have been screened for HCV? Please join the conversation and share your experiences in the comments.