I quickly realized that Hepatitis C was going to be nothing like having HIV, where I could just pop a pill a day. This was going to be completely different.
While living in America, there was no way I could have afforded the tests for these STI’s, let alone the treatment for them. Just to give you an idea, a standard blood test just to check my CD4 and viral load cost $300/£190. The cost of ATRIPLA in the U.S. without any health insurance is an eye-watering $1,800/£1,115 per month.
I count myself exceptionally lucky to hold a British passport and have access to the amazing system that is our National Health Service. I have American friends who despair regularly, living in fear that they will loose their jobs and subsequently their company paid for health insurance. This is certainly no way to live, and while President Obama has done his best to attempt to provide healthcare for the masses, he still faces an uphill battle to get the necessary laws passed and the system up and running.
Apologies for the tangent, but such a subject always strikes a nerve with me. Anyway, there is no telling how long I had the infections, or whom they came from. I accept responsibility for my actions, and their consequences, and I don’t blame anyone for it. We all make mistakes, sometimes we are quite lucky with the consequences and sometimes not so.
Back in Birmingham, I was quickly treated at Queen Elizabeth Hospital for the Syphilis, and continued with my ATRIPLA (the Quad blind study had me on ATRIPLA all along). The staff at Queen Elizabeth Hospital’s GU clinic were – and still are, a stellar team. They know everyone by name; they always remember what you were up to when you last saw them; and they take every opportunity to offer support if needed. I don’t think I have ever felt so relaxed in a hospital environment.
The Hep C treatment starts off pretty much the same as when you go in to the HIV clinic. You’ll go in for your bloods, then a week later pop in to see the consultant. Unlike the HIV clinic, the liver clinic at Queen Elizabeth is a much larger department covering all types of problems with the liver, not just Hep C. My first meeting with the consultant was a bit irksome to say the least. He was very short, abrupt and bordering on rude towards me. This wasn’t the friendly and relaxed atmosphere I’d received from the HIV clinic. I walked into his room, not knowing much about Hep C, I’d deliberately not looked it up online before hand, since doing so could lead to a slew of misinformation (We’ve all heard about people Googling ‘headache’ and coming across a link that says they may have a brain tumour etc).
He explained to me that the disease causes inflammation of the liver and eventually leads to the scarring (cirrhosis) of the organ itself. If left untreated, this could cause irreparable damage and eventually lead to the failure of the liver completely. Other complications included liver cancer, and oesophageal and gastric varices. I quickly realized that this was going to be nothing like having HIV, where I could just pop a pill a day and everything would be alright (Not to trivialize HIV, but after a while I sometimes forget I even have it). I was informed that treatment would be intense and it would last up to a year. There were no guarantees that I would successfully complete the course, let alone if it would even clear the disease all together.
It was then on to the results of my first blood test, and they were mixed. The bad news was that the genotype I had was notoriously hard to clear. The good news was that the levels of the virus were minimal. As a result, treatment wouldn’t start immediately and I would have to come back in six months for another check. In the interim, I was advised to keep excessive drinking to a minimum, and of course if I took them, no drugs. I didn’t need telling twice, since I’d already given up most of my vices. For the next six months, life carried on as normal, I got settled in to the UK, found myself a job, and started to build a new life for myself.
During the intervening six months, I had no cause for concern, no complications and as before, still had no idea that I was carrying the virus. Before I knew it, I had my bloods done and was once again sat in front of the same consultant. This time, the news was different, the virus was undetectable, and my body had managed to fight it without medication. Initially I was overjoyed, and couldn’t believe my luck. For the sake of clarity, you, dear reader, should know that such an instance is not normal, and is in fact quite a rare event. This most certainly is NOT something you should pin all your hopes on, if you are facing this disease. To be on the safe side, I was to return again in six months, and double check that the virus had been cleared.
One year on from my initial visit, I was once again sat in the consultant’s office, with all my fingers and toes crossed, hoping beyond hope that I wouldn’t need to go through the gruelling treatment program. I was just about to start a new job, I was happy with life, and I really didn’t want to put everything on hold for a year. Alas, it was not to be. The virus had returned. I was crushed. As with before, the levels of the virus were very slight, and only just above the detectable range. After much discussion with the consultant and my partner, we agreed that I would be able to delay treatment for a year or so that I may start my new job, and get settled with that before further disrupting my life.
I would still go in for regular checks, and with each visit, the news alternated. Every other visit, I was undetectable, and then detectable, and then undetectable again… you get the idea. Finally, the time came when I had to bite the bullet, and it was decided that I would need to start treatment, it was clear that my body was doing its damnedest to clear the virus all by itself, but just wasn’t quite succeeding. My consultant, and now the nurses who dealt with the Hep C treatment collectively agreed that I wouldn’t need a full year long course of treatment.
Much to my relief, I would be going on a new short 12-week program instead. Those were an interesting 12 weeks.
To be continued…