Tina Fore would love to take a long, slow drag on one of the USA Gold cigarettes she spent years smoking.
She craves the salt that just a year ago she ate with every meal. These days, though, and for the rest of her life, it's Mrs. Dash seasoning salt.
Mrs. Fore has hepatitis C, a fatal blood disease that attacks the liver. She has cirrhosis, and her liver is deteriorating by the day. Without a transplant, she'll die.
Her situation is dire. She fights hard not to let on.
"It's not fun," she said recently in Aiken, sitting on a well-cushioned waiting room couch at Wayne's Automotive Center on Richland Avenue.
She was there to place a jar asking for money beside the cash register. On it is her picture and a brief description of what she's up against.
About three weeks ago, she was approved for placement on an organ transplant waiting list at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. That came after months of waiting and batteries of tests.
She needs $3,000 to get on the waiting list. She and her family are confident they can generate the money, but they are worried about the bills that would follow a transplant.
Doctors tell them the surgery will cost between $250,000 and $300,000, not all of which is covered by insurance. If she lives, the drugs it will take to sustain her will cost thousands more.
The 38-year-old mother from Aiken isn't alone in her struggle. In the waiting room, standing beside Mrs. Fore and discussing the disease, is her sister, Cindy Carroll. Also with her is her daughter, Nicole Fore, 15, and her cousin Mary New.
On this day, the women find time for laughter. Still, Mrs. Fore's size 6 hiking boot bounces nervously up and down, one leg crossed over the other.
Doctors don't like to perform living donor transplants, and if they do, they don't like using donors older than 40, said Ms. Carroll, who is 41.
But doctors' wishes did little to deter Ms. Carroll from traveling to Charleston on Friday for tests. It will take days for results to come in.
The possible transplant would endanger both of their lives and doesn't guarantee recovery for Mrs. Fore. But it would bypass more waiting.
"When she found out she was going to die, this lady here, she's got courage like you wouldn't believe," Ms. Carroll said, her hand on her sister's leg to provide comfort.
Hepatitis C is a relatively young disease, first categorized in 1989, according to the National Institutes of Health. Before that, it was called non-A and non-B hepatitis.
About 4 million Americans are infected with the blood-transferred virus, according to the agency, which is composed of medical experts and researchers across the country.
Many infected with the disease contracted it through blood transfusions before the disease was identified and screened for in 1992. It's commonly passed between intravenous drug users and can be contracted through contact with infected blood, according to the National Institutes of Health.
It was around Christmas 2001 when Mrs. Fore began suffering violent abdominal pains. She was diagnosed with gallstones.
As her condition worsened, her diagnosis was changed.
Mrs. Fore says she's unsure how she contracted hepatitis C, but Nicole shows no signs of the disease, which can be passed from mother to child.
Mrs. Fore's liver is unable to filter and detoxify poisons in her body, which can cause her body to swell enormously. Doctors must drain her fluid-filled tissue with needles when she becomes too bloated.
"People would ask when she was going to have the baby," Ms. Carroll said, drawing laughter from Mrs. Fore.
The gardening she used to enjoy is too strenuous now. Some days, she can barely lift a brush to her hair. Her skin is dotted with sores resulting from liver failure.
She says she gets by because of family.
"(She) keeps me going," Mrs. Fore says, pointing to Nicole.
Her husband, though, has mostly abandoned her. He left after learning of the disease's unrelenting effects. Only recently has he inquired about her condition.
"He doesn't understand," Mrs. Fore says.
Not many people do. The disease is "rapid and unpredictable," Ms. Carroll says. Researchers tell the family they are still learning how to treat it. There is no known cure.
About 11,000 people die each year from the disease, according to data from death certificates. But the National Institutes of Health says a lack of diagnosis could mean the number is higher.
The disease is finicky. Mrs. New contracted hepatitis in the mid-1980s through a blood transfusion, but it went undiagnosed as hepatitis C until two years ago. She was quickly treated and has never shown any ill effects.
"I was lucky," she says.
To qualify for the waiting list in Charleston, Mrs. Fore had to be healthy. Three teeth she had with cavities had to be pulled. Still, she doesn't reflect on the negative.
"You get mad; you get frustrated," but you stay positive, she says, glancing at her daughter.
Nicole maintains a similar attitude.
"I try to look at the good parts," she says. "She'll get the liver."
To help Tina Fore in her battle against hepatitis C, go to the family's Web site, tinaslivertransplant.tripod.com/.
Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 279-6895 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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