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Going Viral

New Mexico has one of the worst Hepatitis C problems in the nation—for now

April 27, 2011, 12:05 am

Santa Fean Jeffrey Hockersmith spent three years waiting for a liver transplant, and gradually came to accept that he was going to die.

“Your organs start to fail—your liver first; your kidneys will go, heart, lungs,” Hockersmith says. “At the end of that process, I wasn’t comatose, but I sure wasn’t doing anything. It was just so hard to even get up out of bed.”

On Feb. 1, 2004, Hockersmith’s intuition—and abysmal blood test scores—lead him to believe it was his last day on the planet. But that night, he received the long-awaited call. By the next day, while Hockersmith was being prepped for transplant surgery at a hospital in Omaha, Neb., his new liver, nestled in a picnic cooler, was being driven 180 miles from Kansas City, Mo., in the midst of a snow storm. Lying on the operating table, Hockersmith felt himself leave his body and observe the scene from the ceiling—altered states of consciousness caused by a buildup of toxins in the blood are a symptom of end-stage liver disease.

“I was looking down at this whole wasted husk of a body, and they said, ‘Should we pronounce him?’” Hockersmith says. 

Hepatitis C was Hockersmith’s old liver’s undoing. He believes he contracted the disease from either a bad blood transfusion or an unsanitary dentist. Although Hockersmith was symptom-free at the time of diagnosis, he says that his health deteriorated precipitously without warning.

“You can go along perfectly well—no symptoms, no limitations—and, all of a sudden, you’re sick and you get sicker; my metaphor is a bowling ball rolling off a table,” Hockersmith says. “Lost mental acuity—certainly, that’s maybe the saddest thing; it does happen quite quickly…The physical symptoms are tolerable, but when you add them all together, it’s quite difficult, and it really accelerates; that curve just takes off.”

Hepatitis C virus is commonly mistaken as strictly a heroin junkies’ malady that need not concern law-abiding citizens. The virus has never incited the public outcry caused by HIV, nor the sweeping changes in federal public-health policies that averted a potential HIV epidemic back in the early 1990s. But while incidence of HIV in New Mexico has never been high, the state leads the nation in deaths from chronic liver disease due to the deadly combination of HCV and alcoholism. Furthermore, the rate of HCV infection in the state’s prisons is the highest reported by any state. 

Now, a new antiviral treatment, which is expected to become available next month, has the potential to change the HCV landscape in New Mexico—but not without a dramatic shift in public attitudes and in treatment protocols in the HCV incubation tank known as the state prison system.

“I wish we could get [more advocacy and funding] going for hepatitis C,” Dr. Sanjeev Arora, director of University of New Mexico’s HCV treatment program, says. “It’s needed; otherwise, huge numbers of deaths will occur.”

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