By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
"To me, it wasn't just the hep C that was scary," she says. "It was thinking that I had shared a needle with a dirty individual, someone I wouldn't want to share a fork with. That's what grossed me out."
Justin didn't have to deal with lingering uncertainties about whether he was exposed or not. His test came back positive, genotype 1b. And his is the first case in which the DNA sequencing tests have been completed, establishing with almost 100 percent certainty that his infection came from Kristen Parker. Like Lauren Lollini, Justin found out he had the virus before anyone had heard of Parker. He'd gone to Rose for surgery in February. He and his new girlfriend decided to get tested for STDs in May. The test came back positive for hep C — which shocked the hell out of him, and didn't do much for his new romance, either. Soon the health department was calling, asking him about tattoos and surgery.
Justin is twenty years old. He recently left the Marine Corps, where they tested you for everything, and he knew he left with a clean bill of health. He was studying to be an emergency medical technician and working with a local fire department when he found out that he had the disease, and that this scrub tech at Rose had given it to him. "I was extremely pissed off," he says. "People like that should not be allowed to be around patients. I'm surprised someone didn't catch it sooner."
4567 E. 9th Ave.
Denver, CO 80220
Category: Medical Facilities
Region: East Denver
He just started interferon treatments. He expects many of his plans will be on hold for the next year, until the treatments and the potentially debilitating side effects — including fatigue, depression, irritability and lack of concentration, none of them conducive to EMT work — are over. Despite being the only patient whose infection has been positively, unequivocally linked to Parker, he says Rose hasn't exactly been reaching out to him.
"They didn't communicate all that well," he says. "They offered help if you needed it, but they didn't go into specifics. The only recommendations I got were from the health department. I'm trying to fix it so I'm not stuck with hepatitis for the rest of my life. But everything's coming out of my own pocket right now.
"Their plan seems to be to wait it out and see what happens. I think that's a bad way to take responsibility for it."
Recent blood tests indicate that Justin's viral load is increasing. He's not optimistic that he's going to be one of the happy 20 percent who "clear" the virus on their own. He knows there's only a fifty-fifty chance that the interferon treatment will work. He's not even of drinking age yet, and he's looking at a lifetime of having to be extra-careful about his diet and his liver, avoiding alcohol and certain foods. He's got doctors and researchers calling him up, wanting him to join this or that study, but he's still adjusting to the idea of being a long-term patient. "I don't want to feel like a number, with all these people watching me," he says.
The virus can affect people quite differently, notes Nancy Steinfurth, executive director of Hep C Connection, a national support group based in Denver. Yet nearly everyone struggles at first with the fear that they will be perceived differently because of their positive status. "It has a lot of stigma because the majority of the people who've gotten hepatitis C have done so through drug use," Steinfurth observes. "But it also happens because of exposure in medical facilities more than most people realize. This group didn't choose this. They're just caught in it."
Not everyone chooses interferon treatment, Steinfurth adds, and there's no right decision for everyone: "There are a lot of things people can do to improve their health without going through treatment. Even if the treatment is successful, you still need to protect your liver and heal the damage — lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, losing weight if you're obese. I know someone who's had hep C for forty years. The treatment didn't work, but her lifestyle changes have led to great improvements."
Lauren Lollini decided to become a subject in a long-term University of Colorado study of the virus. She is hoping to play a part in unlocking the greater mysteries of hepatitis C — why some cases are acute, others chronic; why some people clear it on their own; why some respond to treatment and some don't. And maybe some day there will be a more reliable cure, even a vaccine, and fewer of the terrible unknowns now facing so many surgery patients caught in Kristen Parker's vast carelessness.
"I'm doing what I can to make myself better," Lollini says, "and I'm doing more advocacy work. I guess you could say it's less personal for me now."