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Homing in on Hepatitis C

Wednesday, August 29, 2018 9:23 AM

It is a disease that can live in your body for years undetected. About 4 million people in the U.S. suffer from the liver infection hepatitis C. Winnetka resident Laurie Cherbonnier, 66, was stunned to learn that she had been living with the virus for decades. While it typically causes few symptoms, it can lead to grave conditions including liver cancer and cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver.

Laurie Cherbonnier

Laurie Cherbonnier talks candidly about unknowingly carrying the hepatitis C virus, some 40 years after receiving blood transfusions following an equestrian accident.

“They did the test and lo and behold, I couldn’t believe I had it,” recalled Cherbonnier. “Now my job is to make sure my daughters get tested, because I could have passed it on to them during childbirth.”

Data Helps Identify Risk
Cherbonnier’s diagnosis came thanks to a new NorthShore research project led by Hepatology Section Chief Claus Fimmel, MD, and funded by former Trustee and Chairman of Skokie Hospital, Earl Abramson. The Abramson Hepatology Fund supports the innovative use of NorthShore’s Electronic Medical Record (EMR) system to identify previously untested and undiagnosed at-risk baby boomer patients.

The data-driven prompt led Cherbonnier’s Internal Medicine Physician Dr. Ekta Modi Patel, DO, to recommend Hepatitis C testing.

“NorthShore is one of the first healthcare providers in the country that takes a systemwide approach to screen for Hep C through our EMR,” explained Dr. Fimmel, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “We’ve already screened more than 13,000 patients and successfully treated more than 450 patients with new, highly effective medications.”

Acquired by Transfusion
Hepatitis C is usually spread when blood from an infected person enters the body of another, uninfected person. Until a screening test was developed in the early 1990s, people often acquired hepatitis C through blood transfusions.

Cherbonnier clearly remembers the day that foreshadowed her diagnosis. She was 25 years old and exercising racehorses, an exhilarating job that matched her passion for horses and adventure. One afternoon during a gallop through a field, her horse bucked and kicked her in the stomach, his hoof landing squarely on her liver and kidneys.

Following the accident in Virginia, Cherbonnier underwent several blood transfusions which passed the virus to her. Although the Hep C went undetected for several decades, Dr. Fimmel confirmed that Cherbonnier had not sustained any liver damage.

“The news is all good. I have my medication and I will be cured,” Cherbonnier said. “I’m so very grateful to Dr. Fimmel and the NorthShore team.”