Pegasys treatment offers freedom from potentially terminal disease
Sharing needles isn't a good idea.
Or a smart idea.
But it happens. When you will do anything for your next fix, it's just another bad choice one will make in the long list of decisions that make up drug addiction.
In 2003, I was really good at making bad decisions. Being addicted to cocaine and crystal meth hinders any logical thought process that might occur.
I knew the risks that came along with sharing needles and I did it anyway. In a tiny, dingy bathroom in my studio suite in North Battleford, Sask., I remember telling myself, "He says he doesn't have anything, so it will be okay. Just this once."
I contracted hepatitis C.
Now saying this, I can't be one hundred percent certain that this was the moment I contracted hepatitis C. However, chances are pretty good that this was the time. I received the unfortunate news over the phone while living in a squalid basement suite in southwest Calgary a couple of years later. I was too high to care.
Understanding hepatitis C
Hepatitis C is a liver disease. Hepatitis in Latin literally means inflamed liver. I didn't feel any side effects of the disease at the time. Either I was one of the people who don't experience side effects until later in life, or it was because I was too preoccupied with fighting off the side effects of drug withdrawals. At that time I was roughly spending $500 a day on cocaine and there never seemed enough to satisfy me.
The disease is spread through blood-to-blood contact. In 2007, around 8000 individuals were diagnosed in Canada. Chances are good that there are a large number of people out there who never got tested, believe that they are not sick, and are doing exactly what I was doing.
There is treatment. And serendipitously, I was eligible for that treatment. In 2006, I was experiencing an adverse reaction to the codeine in Tylenol that I had been prescribed for my cavity-filled mouth. I had quit using drugs very recently and was a walking disaster. At the 8th and 8th clinic in downtown Calgary, I saw a poster that proclaimed, "Do you have hepatitis C? Have you recently quit using drugs? You may be eligible for treatment."
Medical study provides opportunity
The program was part of a study done by the University of Calgary to test the effectiveness of the Pegasys treatment on individuals who have recently stopped using drugs. What this meant is that I had the opportunity to rid myself of a potentially fatal disease, for free.
The Pegasys treatment consists of weekly intramuscular injections of Peginterferon alfa-2a, and is taken along with a small mountain of Ribavirin capsules each day for six months. Ribavirin interferes with the virus' ability to replicate, and Pegasys works to reduce the amount of virus in the patient's blood. I had decided that these two aspects of the treatment were going to be a walk in the park. Years of drug abuse had me familiar with handling needles and taking all sorts of pills.
It is recommended that while on the Pegasys treatment, one does not work, but get plenty of rest and focus on recovery. This worked well for my life at the moment, as I was on welfare and part of a long-term residential treatment program for women like myself, called Servants Anonymous Society. The only plans I had were to get better – both physically and emotionally – and I had a lot of work to do.
I had heard stories of the treatment's side effects. One of the specialists I was seeing throughout my treatment explained to me that the side effects were like having a bad flu – but that wasn't what I should be worried about – it was the psychological side effects.
The counselor at Calgary Urban Project Society (CUPS) in Calgary put it very bluntly to me: "Women get aggressive and angry; men try to kill themselves."
Part of my treatment regimen included a weekly visit to a mental health professional.
I thought I could handle whatever was thrown at my by this treatment. I thought I was tough. I started the injections and taking the capsules, and then I knew I was wrong.
Good, Bad and Ugly Side Effects
The first week included puking, diarrhea, fever and my liver swelling up so large that it would catch on my ribcage. I nicknamed it the alien, and tried to laugh about it when I wasn't confined to the toilet. All of these side effects were to be expected, and I tried to make the best out of the situation.
Around the 2 or 3-week mark I began to feel the psychological effects take hold. Feeling rotten all the time certainly didn't help my mood, but adding violent thoughts and outbursts to the mix was something I wasn't prepared for.
I remember sitting on the step of the duplex I was living in, smoking, and I was in complete disbelief of the thoughts that were running through my head.
I couldn't control the thoughts of assaulting my roommates, throwing rocks through the neighbour's windows because their television was on, or burning the house down because one of the girls I lived with was obsessed with Laguna Beach.
I never acted on these thoughts, but I also had no power over them, and that was terrifying.
At the one-month mark, my hair started to fall out. I love my hair, it's always been one of my defining features – and to have to watch it fall out in clumps was devastating. It was disgusting to have my long hair fall out and become entangled in what hair was still attached to my head. I did not lose my locks in their entirety, but it thinned considerably.
Of all the medical side effects, the loss of my hair was the most difficult of the physical effects. Vomiting, pooping myself, and "the alien" were all walks in the park once my hair started to go.
As my treatment progressed, so did the daily number of pills I was required to take. The doctors and therapist prescribed me pills to stay awake during the day, settle my stomach, calm my thoughts, to boost certain counts and diminish others. Pills to control my anger, to help me sleep, flu shots, pneumonia shots, to fight off every little sniffle or fever that came over me, blood tests and urine samples galore. You would be surprised at how skilled one can become at peeing in one of those little orange-capped containers.
Six months after the treatment, the levels of the hepatitis C virus in my bloodstream were looking wonderful. So wonderful, in fact, that I was no longer considered contagious. But this good news was not to be taken as gospel truth; the real success would come six months after I had completed the treatment.
To my amazement, the results of those next tests cleared me.
I was free.
Editor's note: Our writer has asked us to publish the story under a pseudonym in order to avoid any stigmatization.
- By Jane Smith