Real Life

Hepatitis C has been a blessing for me

Years of drug use have left Mary Sherwood (44) with a deadly disease. But the Auckland mum says there has been an upside too.

When I look back at my past life, it sometimes seems like I’m thinking of another person. For a three-year period in my early twenties, I was an intravenous drug user. I injected myself with just about every drug I could lay my hands on.

At the time, I did it because it was what my friends did, and it was a buzz. But looking back, I can see it was my way of dealing with things that had happened to me as a child. I was sexually abused by my grandfather from around the age of six to 11, when I managed to push him away until he stopped. I didn’t tell anyone what had happened for a long time.

Then, when I was 12, my mum died suddenly from a heart attack. I was devastated and didn’t handle it well, especially when my dad remarried. I became a very rebellious teenager. I smoked pot and took speed, and started injecting drugs when I was 20.

It wasn’t just heroin, I’d inject cocaine too – sometimes a cocktail of both. I didn’t care what I took as long as I got that rush. But when I was 23, I ended up very sick for three days after a really bad cocktail and thought I was going to die. I knew I had to stop and I didn’t inject anything after that, but I still took other drugs and drank a lot.

It wasn’t until about five years later that the past caught up with me. I went to the doctor because I had been feeling unwell for ages. It was like I had a non-stop hangover – I was always tired and nauseous. He did some tests and diagnosed hepatitis C.

It was a shock to me – I didn’t know anything about it. I had never worried about the dangers of dirty needles – in those days many people didn’t realise diseases could be spread this way. I thought nothing of sharing a syringe with someone else and although I’d occasionally boil a needle, I rarely thought about hygiene.

Hep C can cause severe damage to the liver and I was told that within 15 years of being infected – some time between 1983 and 1986 – I could have cirrhosis of the liver and 10 years after that I could have liver cancer.

But I thought, “Nobody’s going to tell me I’m going to die unless they are holding a gun to my head.”

I was offered treatment with a drug called interferon, which can help you to recover from hep C. In those days, it was fairly new and experimental and I wasn’t keen on the idea of putting more drugs in my body, so I said “no”.

I decided to cope with hep C my way, by changing my lifestyle. I ate properly and I didn’t give up drinking completely but cut right down. And I decided I was going to get on with life and not feel sorry for myself.

I’ve been through lots of ups and downs in the 15 years since I was diagnosed. I moved to New Zealand from Australia with my Kiwi partner and when our efforts to have a baby weren’t successful, I had IVF. The doctors weren’t worried about the hep C and I got pregnant on my first IVF cycle.

I felt healthier than I had for years when I was pregnant but my son Zane was premature and I needed to have an emergency caesarean. When Zane was 12 weeks old, my partner and I split up, after 14 years together.

It was hard coping with a baby and feeling unwell, but I love being a mum. Zane has had health problems over the years but he doesn’t have hep C, thankfully. I had to give up my accounts job before Zane, who’s now six, was born and I haven’t been able to work since. But I do voluntary work for the Hepatitis C Resource Centre, helping other people with the disease.

oy health is not great. I feel tired and nauseous all the time. I frequently dry retch, even when doing things like cleaning my teeth or having a cup of tea, and I have to force myself to eat. I still haven’t had interferon treatment though, because it has awful side effects and not everyone who has it benefits from it. You can go through hell and still not be cured. I would need to have the treatment for 18 months so it would be hard to manage.

I want to go home to family in Australia who can give me the support and care I need while I’m going through it, but I can’t take Zane out of New Zealand because of custody issues. People probably think I’m mad for choosing not to have a medical treatment that could stop the disease from damaging my liver, but I have to do what I think is best.

Instead of having drug therapy, I’m coping with hep C by having a positive attitude. Sheer willpower is getting me through. If my liver starts to pack up and my doctor tells me I really need drug treatment, I will make the decision whether to have treatment here, without family support, or go back to Australia and leave Zane with his father.

But despite all the trouble it has caused me, I can honestly say having hepatitis C has been a blessing for me. I know it’s a potentially life-threatening disease, but being diagnosed with hep C made me change my life and if I hadn’t, I don’t think I’d be alive today. I know I’m a survivor.  Donna Fleming

  • Hepatitis C is an infectious virus spread by blood-to-blood contact. It is contracted by sharing hypodermic needles, using non-sterile tattooing and body piercing equipment, via contaminated blood transfusions or blood products (these are now tested, however) and, less commonly, during sex. oany of those exposed to the virus clear it but some become chronically infected and risk liver damage, including cirrhosis (scarring) and cancer. For more information, visit www.hepc.org.nz

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