November 27, 2013

Bernie Miller: My Journey with Hepatitis C

Bernie Miller

November 26, 2013

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My name is Bernie Miller. I celebrated my 60th birthday this week. Let me begin by telling you some of my past. I was born in Arkansas but moved to California with my family in 1960 at the age of 6. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 60's. As a lot of young people did in those years, I experimented with alcohol and drugs. When I was 18, I started working in bars. At that point, alcohol became my favorite mind altering substance. Back then drinking on the job was not only accepted, but expected of bartenders. I did not let down anyone's expectations in that regard. I also learned that using crank (the drug to go fast before the modern day methamphetamine) would help me to stay awake and be able to drink longer. By the time I was 30, I had done enough damage to my liver to be turned down for a life insurance policy. This scared me so I swore off drinking several times over the next few years.

In the meantime I started a new love affair with crank. So much so that I was finally able to quit drinking and just do the crank. Originally I snorted crank, then learned to smoke it. I eventually began doing it intravenously. I always considered myself to be immune from AIDS and hepatitis because I didn't share needles. Somehow, I never got into trouble with drugs till I was almost 54 years old. Because of possession for sale of a controlled substance, I was sent to San Quentin State Prison. While in prison I was told by a prison doctor (who had the bedside manner of a parasite) that I had Hep C, Cirrhosis, and Ascites, and that I was going to die.

With that information I decided when I got out of prison that there was no reason for me to not go back to drugs. My health went on a downhill spiral immediately. In 2011, being in such bad shape that I could no longer do drugs, I checked myself into an alcohol and drug rehab. After a few months in this program, I heard that there were treatments available for people with Hep C. I went to my insurance who referred me to a primary care doctor. I told him I had Hep C and he referred me to a GI who does a lot of work with people with Hep C. My GI did a lot of blood work on me. My viral load of Hep C was 7.4 million which is extremely high. In his estimate, I probably contracted it over 30 years ago (long before I even started using needles.) He then explained how easily this virus is spread. All the time I thought I was protecting myself by only using new needles, I probably already had this disease. I can't pin down a time or event to when I got it, but knowing how many ways it can be spread sure let me know it could have been any of hundreds of times and/or situations.

Enough of that. My GI suggested that I get started on triple-therapy treatment with Interferon, Ribavirin, And Incivek. While waiting for approval from my insurance, a friend of mine told me about a support group on facebook for people with the disease. I joined this group (Hepatitis C Family and Friends) about 1 month prior to starting treatments. Here I was given information about what to expect from treatment and questions I should ask my doctor. People on this site have helped me get through the first 5 months of treatments so far. It has been a very rough ride for me. I have suffered almost every possible side effect and may have invented a few of my own. LOL. Anyway, without the support of this loving and caring group, I would probably given up on treatments a few weeks into it. My Hep C virus has been undetectable since week 4. That doesn't mean I am cured, simply means the treatments are working. I still have 6 months of treatments and I know with the continued love and support of this group, and the prayers to a loving God that I have recently learned to appreciate, I can and will make it through this. I will someday be doing the happy dance with so many others who have fought this dragon and won.

I will finish my story with 3 things. #1 Getting clean and sober has saved my life and I have never left the rehab. I am now on staff as a manager and counselor. I want to help others who want to stop destroying their lives. #2 Having this disease, going through treatments, and finding this wonderful support group has taught me a whole new level of humility, faith, and gratitude. My 3rd and final comment will be about getting tested for Hepatitis C. As I mentioned above, I probably had this virus long before I stuck a needle in my arm. There are so many different ways to contract this disease. Unless you live in a germ-free, virus-free environment, you would be as foolish as I was to think you are immune to being infected. Although I probably got mine from something related to the drug environment I lived in, you don't have to use or be around drugs to get it. Get tested. Be safe. New treatments coming out have minimal side effects and great results.

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