“Hep C Was My Wake-up Call”

Fourteen years ago, Hank Johnson’s goals were put on the back burner. Then a hep C diagnosis inspired him to become a U.S. congressman. 

Katie Alberts
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The first thing U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, 58, did when he learned he had hepatitis C in 1998? “I put on my skates and went to the rink. I felt shell-shocked and skated alone for an hour. I didn’t know what hep C was, how I got it or how long I could expect to live.” What he did know was that he wanted to reevaluate his priorities. “I thought about my hopes for my life. I’d always dreamed of public service and being a congressman, and I figured it was now or never.”

Johnson was elected to serve Georgia’s 4th congressional district in 2006. But balancing treatment and service wasn’t easy. “I was treated from 1999 to 2010, and sometimes it left me weak,” he recalls. When asked what kept him strong, the congressman points to his constituents. “It sounds improbable, but when your personal struggling turns into a struggle to help other people, you almost enjoy the difficulties of treatment. You think, Yes it’s hard going now, but I’ll find a way to make my experience help someone else once it’s over.”

Now virus-free, Johnson is committed to raising awareness: “Testing for hep C should be part of standard medical practice.” He’s also determined to lift the stigma. “Having hep C doesn’t mean you used intravenous drugs,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you had a blood transfusion. There are so many ways you can contract it, and most people, including me, don’t know how they got it.”

Today, Johnson says these strategies have allowed him to live well with hep C:

“Pick a healthcare provider you click with”
“A patient should like his healthcare provider and vice versa,” says Johnson. “When you find that, you actually look forward to strategizing about the next step in your treatment.”

“Lean on your loved ones”
Johnson describes his wife, Mereda, as “110% supportive.” “She has shepherded me through this process. When I’ve been weak, she’s been strong. Treatment can be a roller coaster for your mind as well as your body, and Mereda understands that, making sure I eat well and get rest. She doesn’t judge me if I’m tired or irritable.”

Tip: Ask your spouse to go with you to your appointment. That will help him or her get a better understanding of the disease. If you are eligible for treatment, your partner should be aware that a cure is the goal, emphasizes Duke University hepatologist Andrew Muir.

“Keep your liver top of mind”
“I was lucky that cigarettes and alcohol weren’t part of my life before my diagnosis,” says Johnson. “I had quit both many years earlier. Now I focus on eating a balanced diet and pushing myself to exercise. I walk briskly everywhere I go. I take the stairs. I do a little jogging. Throughout the day, I tell myself, Do not take the easy way.”

Tip: If you’ve tried giving up smoking in the past and have failed, try again. Research shows that the greater your number of quit attempts, the greater the odds that you’ll succeed on your next try!

July 2013