In 1992, Rapid City native Paula Edwards went in for a physical exam. Not knowing she had been carrying a potentially deadly virus for most of her life.
"He said you have the Hepatitis C Virus, so I said okay so it's a virus you can give me some antibiotics and I'll be alright and he said no it's a virus that will eventually destroy your liver." Said Edwards.
Paula was infected with Hepatitis C during a blood transfusion when she was 12 years old, before many clean medicine practices were implemented. During the 70's and 80's, blood transfusions, tattoos, body piercing's, and other needle experimentation did not have all the sterility requirements they do today. Meaning there is the potential for thousands of others like Paula to be infected. It's for this reason doctors believe the baby boomer generation are most at risk for the liver disease.
"On average, every 30th (Baby Boomer) patient is infected with Hepatitis C and if we follow this trend literally will find more than 800,000 patients in the United States just infected with this virus." Said Dr. Mumtaz Niazi, a hepatologist at Avera McKennan.
Hepatitis C is a silent killer that can stay dormant inside the body for decades without showing any symptoms. In Paula's case it was more than 30 years.
"With all liver disease the people feel perfectly fine, the time to start feeling the symptoms from liver disease is too late. It has already developed cirrhosis or end-stage liver disease and after that a lot of times their only life-saving procedure becomes a liver transplant." Said Dr. Niazi.
Transplant became Paula's only option after her symptoms worsened. Luckily for Paula, she only had to wait 17 days to get the gift of life.
"Most people with liver disease wait at least 360 days for a liver transplant so thankfully I got one because I would say in the next couple days I would've died I was very very sick." Said Edwards.
Paula says she's the living example of why early detection is so important. Medications continue to get closer to a permanent cure, but without symptoms the disease can sneak up on you quickly. For Paula, it's a no brainer: if you're a baby boomer or simply getting older, just get checked.
"I would suggest that if you're 40 to 60 years old I would get the test just to make sure and think how much better you'll feel once you get it and know you don't have it." Said Edwards.
"If it's negative, fine you're perfect, but if it's positive you won't sit on it. It needs to have a treatment and should not lead to further death or liver failure." Said Dr. Niazi.
Avera McKennan is offering free Hepatitis C testing on Tuesday, January 15th from 8am to 6pm. The screenings will take place on the first floor of the hospital's Plaza 3. A transplant specialist will also be speaking from noon to 1 about Hepatitis concerns and what the future holds. For more information about Hepatitis testing just call 877-AT-AVERA.