TIM LICKTEIG: A long And Hard Journey

By CATHY LICKTEIG For The Tribune Bismarck Tribune  Friday, April 15, 2011 8:08 pm

When Tim Lickteig steps over the starting line at the Boston Marathon on Monday he will have won an inexorable, two-year race to reclaim his life.

Three years ago, Tim, then 50, learned he had

hepatitis C.

The diagnosis was a shock and an embarrassment. Tim believed that he’d already atoned for his intravenous drug use. In 1980, Tim spent three months in an inpatient drug treatment program and six months in an outpatient group, both in North Dakota. His first job was at a treatment center in Iowa helping others begin their recoveries.

After also working in Indiana and Minnesota, Tim moved to Bismarck in 1990. He was joined by his wife, Marcy, and their young sons, Ben and Andy.

Tim and Marcy put family life ahead of everything. The boys thrived in the Bismarck schools, both competing on swim teams. In addition, both boys achieved black belts in taekwondo.

Marcy began what would become a 20-year career at Basin Electric Power Cooperative. Tim started working for automobile dealerships in Bismarck. He and Marcy rode their motorcycles, played golf and took ski trips with their sons. Tim worked hard, laughed often and was kind to everyone. He often brought to his family’s dinner table acquaintances who were putting their lives back together.

Unfortunately, Tim’s commitment to his recovery and healthy living couldn’t stop the hepatitis C virus from destroying his liver. The disease produces no symptoms. So by the time heart issues, fever, fatigue and muscle pain sent Tim to his doctor, he’d already developed stage 3 liver disease, 28 years after making his break from drug use.

If that wasn’t enough, Tim had to find a way to tell his sons that the consequences of his behavior many years earlier had caught up with him.

The demons had gotten a foothold and would have to be exorcised again – this time with powerful drugs that, ironically, he would have to inject into his body.

“I was 18, and a senior in high school,” said Andy, who has his father’s grin, red hair and green eyes. “My folks told me the hepatitis C was serious and that we didn’t know how it would turn out. It wasn’t easy to hear that.”

Ben bears a striking resemblance to his mother with his broad smile, brown hair and hazel eyes. “I was 21 and away at college,” he said. “In some ways getting the news over the phone softened the impact, but I wished I could have hugged my dad and mom when they told me.”

Both those who have endured it and the medical professionals who prescribe it describe the treatment for hepatitis C as hellacious.

Tim’s protocol included weekly injections of interferon, a potent chemotherapy; twice-daily doses of ribavirin, an anti-viral drug; and daily injections of Neupogen to help the bone marrow produce white cells to fight infections. The side effects of these drugs -nausea, severe weight loss, skin lesions, fatigue and intermittent depression – would wreak havoc with every part of his body and his life.

“The treatment is so awful that only the most motivated of patients can handle the 48-week course,” said Kent Martin, Tim’s doctor.

Martin is an internal medicine and infectious disease specialist at Medcenter One.

Even though I’m twelve years older, Tim and I are very close. We come from a family of five children. As the oldest and the only daughter, I was pressed into duty caring for my younger brothers, in Albert Lea, Minn. That was especially true with Tim who, as a baby, was small and thin.

As we grew into adults, we spoke on the phone on weekends.

The calls between Tim’s home in Bismarck and mine in Camden, Maine increased in frequency during the spring of 2008. By that time he was about 12 weeks into his 48-week course of treatment. Tim’s voice was strained as he swallowed the tears he was holding inside. He described the horrible side effects – the sores on his legs, the nausea, hair loss, fatigue, depression and weight loss – from the medications.

Tim wondered if it was worth it.

“How can something that makes me so horribly sick make me well?” he asked. “What if the treatment doesn’t work? It doesn’t always.”

There were no answers. Family and friends just listened and worried.

Marcy had to sit by and watch the attack on her husband’s mind and body.

“I tried to be positive when Tim was around. I did my worrying in private; Tim felt guilty enough,” Marcy recalled. “One night Andy noticed that I’d been crying. He gave me a huge hug and said ‘Dad’s going to be fine.’ This moment gave me renewed strength to keep going.”

During the next few months Tim’s immune system became so ravaged from the drugs that an ordinary cold became a life-threatening bronchitis. The lesions on his legs were almost impossible to control. He needed extra doses of Neupogen to fight infections. He was dangerously underweight for the amount of interferon and ribavirin he needed to fight the hepatitis. People bribed, nagged and cajoled him to eat, but nothing smelled good, nothing tasted good.

If only he could keep his spirits up.

In May, 2008, I flew to Bismarck to attend the high school graduation of Tim’s younger son, Andy. Until then, Tim had said no each time I asked if I could visit.

“I can’t stand the thought of you seeing me like this,” he’d say.

Tim and Marcy met me when my plane arrived. It was a good thing that Marcy was there because I almost didn’t recognize Tim. He couldn’t stand up straight, he was thin and pale. A familiar eye brow curl was there, but it wasn’t dancing.

Later, when everyone else had gone to bed, I asked Tim if one of my jelly omelets – one of the few foods he’d liked as a baby – might help. He shook his head. “Couldn’t keep it down,” he replied.

Months later, Tim told me that the only family photo taken that year was with Andy at graduation.

As that summer ebbed into fall, Tim began to feel “less horrible,” as he put it.

Blood tests taken every month during the previous 44 weeks had shown a progressive and substantial drop in the viral load – the number of hepatitis C cells.

Though they never allowed themselves to get too optimistic, Tim, his family and his doctor felt pretty good about the way things were going.

His doctor needed no persuading when Tim told him he wanted to go sky diving to celebrate the fact that the treatment was almost complete. Martin signed the medical release and told Tim that he deserved to have a great time.

On a crisp September day in 2008, when the sky over the North Dakota prairie was endlessly blue, Tim, Marcy, Ben and Andy had gathered at the Fargo airport. They were there to celebrate Andy’s graduation and Tim’s improving health.

Professional jumpers instructed them in the use of the equipment and safety procedures. Each member of the family prepared to jump.

Tim was the first to go. He and his professional jump partner boarded a small single-engine airplane. When it reached about 13,500 feet, Tim and his partner attached their harnesses together, moved toward the open door and leapt out of the plane. Later that evening Tim described his experience.

“You lie flat out and just fly. You don’t even have to breathe. There’s no noise when you’re free falling at 120 miles per hour. I felt like I was floating not falling,” he said. “It was like drifting on a bed of air. After several minutes of flying, my tandem partner told me to pull the cord to open the parachute. We glided softly to the ground and landed standing up. It was an out-of-body experience and I didn’t even think about hepatitis.”

Propelled by his soaring spirits, the last four months of Tim’s treatment passed quickly and with a diminishing level of nausea and fatigue. At the end of the 48th week, January 2009, blood tests indicated that the count of hepatitis C cells was down to zero.

Everyone was ecstatic. Martin told him they would wait six months before doing any more testing. Tim set out to reclaim his life.

Editor’s note: Tim Lickteig of Bismarck will be among those at the starting line for this year’s Boston Marathon. Cathy Lickteig, who offers an inside view of Tim’s agonizing fight against hepatitis C, is his older sister. She resides in Camden, Maine. Today’s story begins a three-part series.