Vietnam era vet Mike Blackburn.jpg

Athens resident on hospice advocates early detection

ATHENS – Mike Blackburn didn’t serve in Vietnam but he was a veteran of that era. He never served in combat. But his war continues to this day. And according to his doctors, his war will end soon.

Blackburn, 62, has hepatitis C virus with stage 4 liver failure. A few weeks ago he was placed on hospice with 3-6 months life expectancy. His diagnosis of hepatitis C didn’t come until Aug. 10, 2014, just six days before his 62nd birthday, when he went to the hospital with severe stomach pain.

Last year’s birthday of course is a blur for Blackburn and his wife, Pam. But he’s a self-proclaimed old country boy from Kentucky and he’s a fighter and he hasn’t given up hope.

“I’m going to have a better birthday this year,” he said. “I’m going to fool them all.”

Their neatly kept home sits just off U.S. 72. Pam waves down a visitor – who inadvertently passed it twice – and smiles as she motions for the car to pull all the way up into the driveway. Besides advocating her husband’s cause with the Army and with Veterans Affairs, she’s assumed all the duties of maintaining the house and yard. Blackburn is on oxygen and doesn’t have much energy. Some of his days are better than others.

“We’ve been in the hospital eight times in three months,” Pam said. Her husband’s medical history includes two heart attacks in early 2001, pneumonia in 2014 and now the death sentence of hepatitis C with stage 4 liver failure.

“Everything went downhill since last summer,” Blackburn said.

He just wishes the hepatitis C virus could have been caught sooner, not at age 61. But he wants his fellow Vietnam era veterans to learn from his experience. Research suggests that Vietnam era veterans have a higher prevalence of hepatitis C virus than other veterans or nonveterans. However, the reasons for this are unclear since this research has been conducted among Department of Veterans Affairs patients and most veterans do not use the VA, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“I would just tell all of them to check for hepatitis C,” Blackburn said of his message to Vietnam era veterans, “because I didn’t know until I was 61 years old.”

Pam, 54, his wife of 35 years, has become his public voice. She’s carried the battle cry of hepatitis C to Army leaders, the VA and the community. She didn’t ask for this campaign but, like her husband, she’s a fighter, too.

“I want to be an advocate for this,” she said. “My husband may not make it but nobody should have to go through this.”

Blackburn, born in Princeton, Kentucky, between Fort Campbell and Paducah, quit school and joined the Army in 1972. He never liked school. And he wanted to serve like his father, Robert Dale Blackburn, a 20-year careerist and sergeant major who earned a Bronze Star in the Korean War.

Blackburn served from 1972-75, mostly at Fort Benning, Georgia, as an orthopedic specialist and left the Army as a specialist 4. He took his orthopedic training at Walter Reed and his medical corpsman training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

He and his wife believe he somehow contracted hepatitis C during his military service in an era when needles and blood products and hospital procedures were not as sanitized as they are today.

“It was really no telling (the origin). I stuck myself with needles of course. I worked orthopedics the whole time I was in service,” Blackburn said. “There was a lot of blood floating around there. I have stuck myself with needles in fingers three or four times.”

He said he would inadvertently prick his finger during his orthopedic work. “Just cleaning up afterwards and being careless,” he said. “It just happens, believe me. In fact the more careful you try to be the more often it happens.”

Pam, who also grew up in an Army family, said there is a stigma attached to hepatitis C but “Mike isn’t a drug user or alcoholic.”

The couple moved to Athens 17 years ago from Fort Hood, Texas, where they lived seven years. They have three daughters – Mary Jane Johnson, 32, Emma Blackburn, 27, and Lillie Belle Blackburn, 18 – and one grandson, Isaiah Johnson, 10. Despite his prognosis, Blackburn said he feels blessed.

“Mike’s legacy – I’m going to tell you – he’s going to bless many others,” Pam said. “May he bless someone else.”

Editor’s note: This is the 25th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.

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