Jan Alley and David Halchishick are on a mission. They want to get a message out to the community about the seriousness of hepatitis C. They should know -- Dave has been diagnosed terminal with the disease.
He doesn't want your pity. He wants drug users to stop, and warns teenagers never to start.
"When I was in the service in the 1960s, after boot camp I messed around with IV drugs. As a result of that, I got real sick. I went to a hospital and they told me I had hepatitis. They thought they had treated it, and in my mind they had, and nothing happened for about 35 years. I dodged the bullet for a long time," said Halchishick.
Halchishick admits he used drugs off and on even after that hospital stay. He says he's been off drugs now since 1984. He put himself through college and became a certified drug and alcohol counselor in Phoenix and in Payson. He was in remission for more than 30 years.
"About two years ago, I read an article about a drug and alcohol counselor diagnosed with it (hepatitis C), and six months later he died.
"So I went to my doctor and asked to have certain blood tests. We learned I had liver disease. I was very weak and my skin itched a lot," he said.
County has its share of cases
Bill Hyer is HIV coordinator for Gila County with the health department. He says hepatitis C is a virus that destroys the liver. "If the individual doesn't change their behavior, then it can kill them," he said.
"Recently, the physical symptoms were minimal -- itchy skin, aches and pains in my legs, which I blew off since I like to play a lot of golf and I'm a tall and skinny guy," Halchishick said.
The Arizona Department of Health Services said, as of October, there were 443 cases of hepatitis C in Gila County. "It's pervasive here. There are two problems -- those who have it and don't know it and may be spreading it further; and those with it who moved to Payson or Globe, and are not seeing doctors or reporting their condition," Hyer said.
The virus is spread in a variety of ways, but according to Hyer, generally it's spread from people sharing needles, or snorting drugs through straws or other things that can cut the inside of the nose, spreading tiny droplets of blood from person to person.
Hyer and Halchishick believe Payson has a high number of methamphetamine users. They say those people have an incredibly high chance of getting hepatitis C because, they say, they often make bad choices. They say a person snorting a drug through a straw or a dollar bill can catch hepatitis nearly as easy as someone who uses intravenous drugs.
Hyer recently applied for a three-year federal grant of $167,000 to expand the health department's ability to diagnose people with hepatitis C, educate the public about the virus and treat patients with the illness. He expects to learn in January whether the department will get the grant. In the meantime, he says the department does not have testing capabilities, but he does community outreach programs to educate people of all ages about the disease.
Recently, a doctor told Halchishick he probably only has a couple of weeks to live. He and his wife, Jan, want to spend his last weeks getting the word out about this disease.
"Our goal is not to say, ‘poor us' -- we want an awareness in this community about this virus. If his death can save one life -- we've succeeded," said Alley.
Halchishick and Alley would like to thank the medical professionals and counselors in Payson who have stood by them through these last couple of years.
"We want to thank everyone who has helped us. You're on God's mission," said Halchishick.
The choice is yours
"You have a choice. If you're an IV user, it's like you're getting on a bus headed toward trouble. If you keep using drugs, you'll ride that bus to where I'm at now. And you won't have a chance to get off that bus," Halchishick said.