Liver Life Champion

2019 Cuisine for a Cause Maine Liver Life Champion – Sarah Farrugia

During the same appointment I joyfully learned I was pregnant with my first child, I was also diagnosed with Hepatitis C. Though troubling, it came as no surprise considering my history of intravenous drug use. I first began experimenting with a variety of substances in high school. The night before my first day of college I was introduced to heroin and by Thanksgiving had dropped out of school. The following six years leading up to my Hepatitis C diagnosis were composed of trials and errors in recovery. I spent time in rehabilitation centers and therapy, meticulously unpacking my life events in search of root causes. As with many people who have substance use disorder, I found trauma to be a primary precursor of my condition.

My Hepatitis C diagnosis filled me with fear and shame, while news of my pregnancy stirred hope like I had never felt before. 24 years old and 3 months pregnant, I moved from Michigan to Maine with my husband Jeff in search of a fresh start. Once in Maine, I was referred to the Virology Treatment Center through Maine Medical. For the first time since my diagnosis, I met with compassionate healthcare professionals who treated me with dignity and respect. I cannot highlight enough how important these humane interactions were to me as a patient, a mother-to-be, and a person in recovery. At my initial appointment we discussed my Hepatitis C diagnosis at length: what my blood levels were and what that meant in terms of treatment. Of course, my most pressing concern was what this diagnosis meant for my unborn child. Although treatment would have to be put off until I was done breastfeeding, I was assured by trusted and competent healthcare professionals that mother-to-child contraction rates were low and would only occur during birth; there was no risk to my baby with regards to breastfeeding as the virus is not in breastmilk. Though I decided to breastfeed at my doctor’s encouragement, I received negative backlash from many individuals, some of whom were in the health care field.

Two beautiful, healthy, breastfed children later, I began treatment for Hepatitis C in the spring of 2016. I had heard nightmare stories of the old treatments used for Hepatitis C: up to a year-long process of self-injection and pills, side effects akin to chemotherapy, and relatively low success rates. Thankfully, due to advancements in research, my treatment process would look much different: taking one pill, once a day, I was cured of Hepatitis C in six weeks with no side effects. Further, policy changes for health insurance companies meant this costly treatment would be fully covered. As result of the ongoing Opioid Epidemic, rates of Hepatitis C skyrocket here in Maine, in New England, and throughout the U.S.; in order to stem the tide, it is so essential these medications are accessible to all who need them. The American Liver Foundation and other similar groups are seeking to ensure open access to these incredible advancements. It’s promising to think about what the power of research, fueled by advocacy, might unlock in the future—perhaps a vaccine for Hepatitis C or a cure for Hepatitis B!

Throughout my pregnancies the stigma of being a former drug user and person with Hepatitis C was abundant in many of my interactions with healthcare professionals. Though my initial diagnosis certainly evoked feelings of shame and guilt, they were very much rooted in fears regarding how my diagnosis could affect my child’s health. I do not carry shame over my history with opioid use disorder. In contrast, I am grateful for the lessons I learned and proud of the tribulations I overcame. There are many paths to recovery. Over the past decade my recovery has evolved, strengthened by purpose and a community that uplifts, rather than degrades, me. I am especially grateful for the community and care I have found in the American Liver Foundation. The work they do to support patient care, further research, and educate communities is vital and why it is both my pleasure and honor to be an American Liver Foundation patient advocate and “liver champion”.

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