The gift of life – A liver transplant restores health and wellbeing

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This year Annie Haworth celebrates 20 years as a real estate agent in Mt Maunganui. At 62, she’s fit and healthy, she’s found renewed energy and she’s doubled her output because of it. Life is pretty good.

It wasn’t always, in fact the last 20 years have taken Annie on such a rocky rollercoaster of ill health she wasn’t sure what the future held. Now, with good health and wellbeing a primary focus, she gratefully celebrates two special days each year – her January birthday, and August 14, the day a liver transplant saved her life four years ago.

Annie was diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1995, but she had probably contracted the virus – which is primarily spread through blood to blood contact – sometime in the early 1980s, before much was known about it and before people knew how to protect against it. Annie is clear about how it happened though. Like so many other adolescents, she was living the heady life in Sydney where parties were fuelled by easily accessible drugs and everyone was sharing needles.

“I left home at 18 and spent most of the next 17 years living in Australia. For five years I moved back to Auckland. Sydney was a different world in the 70s and 80s. Drugs were massively available and I was living in this exciting place of parties, beaches and fun all year round. It was exhausting though and the drugs made me lethargic most of the time.”

For six years she was addicted, and worked three jobs to maintain her lifestyle. At 31 she’d had enough. She left the city and moved all the way to Perth to get out of the scene entirely. She weighed less than 50kg.

During the next four years she enjoyed living a normal life, although when her partner at the time suffered an extremely bad accident, she gave up work to care for him and they moved south to Margaret River so he could recuperate. Annie fell pregnant and, at 35, after her son was born, she returned to New Zealand and re-established her life in Mt Maunganui.

Living with a chronic illness

Although the virus had taken hold she doesn’t remember being unwell during this time. In hindsight, she was often fatigued but, like most of us, she simply got on with her life, unaware of the gradually increasing listlessness.

“The diagnosis was a real shock, I just didn’t know what to think,” says Annie. At that time, the only treatment for hepatitis C was a medicine called Interferon, which had to be taken for 12 months. There was no guarantee of success and side-effects were often bad.

“It made me really ill. I had no energy and just wanted to sleep although I kept working during this time. At the end of the 12 months I was told I was clear but then more tests three months later showed it was back. It was definitely a low point.”

At the time, there was not a lot more on offer and while the virus continued to damage her liver, Annie slipped through the cracks of the health system and quietly got on with her life. On the upside, she was enjoying her new career in real estate, but the loss of close family members, including her husband and father in the same year, brought many years of grief on top of her declining health. She heard from the hospital ten years later, in 2007. A new drug was out and although Annie was reluctant to try it, she desperately wanted rid of the virus.

“By this stage I knew a lot more about the disease and knew the end result was cirrhosis of the liver. It was only a six-month course this time and the side-effects weren’t as bad. The same thing happened though – at first I was cleared and then tests came back positive again.”

The road to recovery

By 2011 Annie’s liver was seriously struggling and she became very unwell as toxins built up in her body. Luckily she had a persistent GP who was determined to find out what was going on. At the end of 2012 she was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver.

“That’s the end really. There’s not much more they can do except a transplant. The tests showed I was a good candidate for that and then I went home to get on with my life while I waited. I told myself to look at the positives and focus on what’s on the other side.”

In July 2013 there was another blow. She was called to Auckland Hospital for pre-transplant tests only to be told the donor liver was incompatible.

“Then I really started to worry because they told me I would only stay on the waiting list until the end of September because my liver was getting worse and I was getting sicker. Thankfully I got another call a month later and it was all go.”

Annie will take anti-rejection medication for the rest of her life but counts herself extremely lucky to be alive. Last year, when new hepatitis C anti-viral medication became funded in New Zealand, she was finally able to clear the virus for good, after just a 12-week treatment course. Her health is now excellent and apart from avoiding some foods and alcohol, she lives a very normal and happy life.

“I feel so much more energised now and instead of pouring myself a wine when I get home from work, I go for a walk on the beach. When you’re feeling healthy you’re happy to get out and do things. I love this quieter lifestyle now.”

Get tested – Hep C is now curable

In July last year Pharmac funded two new medications to treat some types of hepatitis C infection. These DAAs (direct acting-antivirals) have cure rates of 90+% and few side-effects.

Hepatitis C is spread through blood-to-blood contact. 50,000 people in New Zealand are thought to be living with the virus but only 50% of those are aware they have it. Many people infected will go on to develop chronic liver disease and 3-5% will develop liver cancer.

Get tested – those most at risk of hepatitis C are people who have:

  • injected drugs (even if only once)
  • received a tattoo or body piercing using unsterile equipment
  • lived or received medical attention in a high-risk country (South East Asia, China, Eastern Europe, including Russia, or the Middle East)
  • had a blood transfusion or received blood products prior to 1992
  • ever been in prison
  • had unprotected male-to-male sex with someone living with hepatitis C

Or, who were born to a mother living with hepatitis C.

Testing is very important as the virus often begins damaging the liver before any symptoms appear. With an early diagnosis and appropriate course of treatment, hepatitis C can often be successfully treated and cured. Contact your GP about getting tested.  For more information, www.hepatitisfoundation.org.nz

source: The Hepatitis Foundation of New Zealand