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VA Pittsburgh's hepatitis C treatment gives Naval Veteran new lease on life

| Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, 1:45 p.m.
Department of Veterans Affairs photo by Bill George

Philip Bruce's family might not have believed his story.

After all, Bruce hadn't bought it when a physician assistant with VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System first suggested he consider a modern, all-oral treatment for hepatitis C.

"Take a pill? I'm like, what?" Bruce says, recalling a conversation with Sarah Foti.

"Sarah told me it would be a pill a day. Even then, I was expecting the worst with side effects — and it was like, nothing."

Cured of the hepatitis C virus since 2015, Bruce is now free of the health concerns that accompanied his previous condition. He can now enjoy the freedoms he fought to preserve while serving with the Navy in the Vietnam War .

"I probably didn't get married or have kids because of fearing I would pass it on," Bruce says of the virus. "I avoided having a bigger social life because people are ignorant of (hepatitis C)."

Bruce is sharing his story because he knows stigmas born of ignorance prevent even greater results in the fight against hepatitis C . He believes the only reason VA Pittsburgh's number of enrolled Veterans cured of hepatitis C — more than 750 — isn't higher is because not enough Veterans are taking advantage of available services.

"I worked at a hospital for 24 years," Bruce says, "and I'm telling you that the health care from the VA is as good as any treatment anywhere."

His story backs up that claim.

Diagnosed in the 1970s, Bruce says he "didn't know what hepatitis C really was…other than bad" until about 14 years later, when his liver enzymes became elevated. A friend who was a nurse recommended against the drugs used at that time to treat hepatitis C. Bruce took her advice after doing his own research.

"The stories of terrible side effects," Bruce says, describing patients' complaints of constant headaches and fatigue commonly associated with those early medications. "I just wasn't interested in having those all the time."

Bruce did what he could. He stopped drinking. He exercised. He kept his doctor appointments.

Eventually, his liver malfunctioned, which brought him face to face with Foti during treatment.

"I'll never forget the day she told me I was approved for the new treatment," Bruce says. "My levels went from 6 million to 15 after a month. After three months, I was cured.

"A pill a day — if I didn't know I was taking a pill, I wouldn't know I was doing anything to be cured. You tell me that's not better than all those side effects."

VA Pittsburgh is reaching out to Veterans who either do not know they have hepatitis C, or are unaware treatment has markedly improved.

"I've been doing this since 1998, and things are dramatically different since then," Foti says. "Back then, they took a shot three times a week and pills twice a day and they felt awful — all for a 50/50 chance it would work."

Bruce's generation of veterans is most at-risk for hepatitis C: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 30 baby boomers are infected with the virus.

The best bet for veterans who want to be tested or explore modern treatment options is to make an appointment with VA Pittsburgh's Hepatitis C Treatment Team.

For veterans such as Bruce, time has never been better spent.

"I didn't tell my family about my hepatitis C until after I was cured," Bruce says. "Now, I'm my own advocate.

"And maybe it's not too late for me to find some of those things I avoided when I had hepatitis C, now that I'm cured."

Enrolled Veterans can call 412-360-1232 to schedule a hepatitis C screening. Visit VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System for details or Veterans Health Administration facilities for a listing of other locations.

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