“I tell everyone I know” – Karen Morrow’s Story

June 23, 2014

Evelyn McKnight and Lauren Lollini

Karen Morrow is a survivor of the 2007 Las Vegas Outbreak and a member of the board of directors of HONOReform

Karen Morrow is a survivor of the 2007 Nevada Outbreak

Karen Morrow is a survivor of the 2007 Las Vegas Outbreak

Karen Morrow studies the Safe Injection Practices Weekly Digest and informs her friends and family about outbreaks that happen throughout the country.  Because the outbreak that took place in Las Vegas in 2008 was so large and touched every segment of society, people there tend to think similar outbreaks cannot happen anywhere else.

Karen’s story began with a routine colonoscopy in 2004 at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.  She recalls the humiliating way in which the patients were navigated through the center.  After being told to take off all her clothes and put her belongings in a bag, she was given a thin hospital gown to wear.  She then had to walk to a row of chairs and sit alongside many men and women all holding their belongings in their laps, waiting to be ushered into a large room full of gurneys prior to going in for their procedures. After her procedure, she was ushered back to the same waiting room where all patients were being given the results of each of their respective procedures—without any measure of privacy or confidentiality.

In March of 2008, along with approximately 63,000 other patients, Karen received a letter from the Southern Nevada Health District notifying her that she had been potentially exposed to HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.  As the letter urged her to do, Karen submitted to a blood test, all the while telling herself that everything would be OK. The day that changed her life forever came less than a week later when her doctor told her that she had tested positive for Hepatitis C.  As Karen possessed absolutely no other risk factors for contracting the potentially deadly virus, the unimaginable reality was that she had been infected with Hepatitis C by her own doctor.

At the time Karen was diagnosed, her husband was living and working in Macau, China.  She had to share with him through video calls the news of the outbreak, receiving the letter urging her to get tested and, ultimately, the sad and scary news that she had indeed tested positive for Hepatitis C.  Karen was alone during the  months of treatment.

For the genotype of HCV that Karen had contracted, the CDC recommended 48 weeks of Interferon and Ribavirin treatment.  Of the 63,000 patients who were notified of the outbreak, those who tested positive for Hepatitis C (including Karen) would need to seek treatment by a gastroenterologist for the virus.  Until the Southern Nevada Health District concluded their initial investigation into the Endoscopy Center, however, nearly half of the gastroenterologists in Las Vegas were not permitted to accept new patients due to the fact that many of these specialists had performed procedures at this particular outpatient surgical center.  Consequently, they, too, came under the scrutiny of the health district.  This left just a handful of specialists to treat hundreds of new patients who like Karen, desperately needed appointments right away.  Karen explains the waiting as agonizing, all the while knowing that her viral count was increasing and wreaking havoc with her liver.

Throughout the 48 weeks of treatment  Karen experienced constant nausea, extreme exhaustion and weakness.  In addition to once weekly Interferon injections and 5 Ribavirin pills per day, she was prescribed pain medication for headaches and cramping, 5 pills per day for exacerbated acid reflux, anti-depressants, 1-2 injections per week of Neupogen to counteract the anemia caused by the Interferon, and several other medications which were taken on an ‘as needed’ basis.  In addition to a gastroenterologist, Karen was also under the constant care of a hematologist/oncologist, a hepatologist and her family physician.  Her healthcare providers encouraged Karen by telling her that her body would, in time, become accustomed to the treatment regimen and that she would eventually feel and function better; this never happened.  Approximately 4-5 months into treatment, Karen’s hair began falling out in handfuls and she eventually decided it would be best to shave her head entirely.  The sight of her bald scalp in the mirror was horrific to her.  It was around this time when Karen’s depression became severe, spiraling ever more downward.  She began having panic attacks and her anxiety was constant.

At the time she tested positive for HCV, Karen had been working at her job as a legal assistant for approximately 16 years and her intent was to continue to work throughout treatment as much as possible.  At first, she was able to work several days a week.  Those days dwindled, however, two to three months into treatment when she became too ill to leave home.  It became necessary for her to utilize intermittent family medical leave, which amounted to days off from work taken without pay.  As the months of treatment went on, the side effects began taking a serious toll on Karen and she was left with no alternative but to stop working entirely.  Two thirds of the way into treatment, Karen was terminated from her employment with the law firm.
In addition to being very ill, Karen had to make many long, frustrating calls to her health insurance company to ensure all of her medications were renewed and filled each month.  Each and every time she called, Karen spoke to a different insurance rep.  She requested to have a case manager assigned to assist her over the 48 weeks of treatment, but her request was denied.  This resulted in Karen having to repeat her medical history over and over and over.  Despite her careful attention to every detail, the insurance company often did not follow through, necessitating the repetition of the process yet again.

Karen puts her faith in God above everything.  She doesn’t feel sorry for herself; just accepts what was given to her and pushes forward.  When Karen prays the “Our Father,” she asks God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  Karen has forgiven and she is thankful, every day, for the many blessings God has given her.  One of those blessings she considers to be her patient advocacy efforts.

Karen says she has grown from the experience in ways she never thought possible.  She is more proactive about her healthcare and advocates for others through her position as board member with HONOReform.  Karen says, “I tell everyone I know about the continuing outbreaks so that they understand it is a very real problem in this country.  I urge them to communicate with their healthcare providers, be proactive in their own healthcare and ask ‘is this a new needle?  Is this a new syringe, and will it be used only for me?’”

One thought on ““I tell everyone I know” – Karen Morrow’s Story

  1. kimi sargent

    I am Karen’s sister, and I am a nurse of over 17 years. I am not as forgiving as my sister. I practice only the strictest infection control protocols & can not grasp the concept of a medical professional purposely jeopardizing the health of another person. I am appalled that any healthcare professional/institution would ever compromise the health & safety of any human being!!!! Karen endured a horrific 48 weeks of treatment that were medically harder on her than the treatment our father went through when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Karen is a surviver, we were raised to never give up and always find a solution! She is my hero, my friend, my sister. so I say “YELL” at the top of your lungs and educate everyone to take control of their healthcare and ask many questions, maybe this will chase these deceptive people out of healthcare and help to avoid any further tragedies like what happened to Karen from happening to others! GOD BLESS & KEEP YOU SAFE! KIMI ;}}


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