I started working as a licensed practical nurse in the mid-70s. This was before anyone knew what AIDS was, and it was well before hepatitis C even had a name. Working as a nurse, I had to be vaccinated against hepatitis B; that was a requirement for starting the job. But once I’d received the vaccination, there wasn’t anything to worry about. That was the mindset. As far as the medical industry was aware at the time, hepatitis B was the only blood borne virus you had to look out for. And everyone on staff was vaccinated, so there was no need for any further precautions—or so we thought. Looking back, clinical protocols in the ‘70s were shockingly relaxed. When we gave injections or administered other medications, we’d take a tray out of the medicine room and bring it from room-to-room, delivering drugs to our patients. After delivering each injection, we would recap the needle and oftentimes put the empty syringe in our pocket. There weren’t receptacles for the needles in each room, so you had to carry them around with you until you finished giving meds. It wasn’t every day that a needle would come uncapped in your pocket and stick you, but it happened. Delivering meds day after day, year after year, I’m sure it happened to almost every nurse. And when it did, it wasn’t a big deal. There wasn’t any procedure in place to investigate the exposure. I remember being stuck with a needle on several occasions—any one of them could have exposed me to the hepatitis C virus. We still had no idea what hepatitis C was. In the 70s, we were rarely—if ever—required to wear gloves. I can’t tell you how many times I cleaned up dried blood without wearing gloves. If I didn’t contract the virus through a needle stick, I’m sure there were plenty of chances for blood-to-blood contact through a tiny cut on my uncovered hands. Of course, I don’t know for sure when and how I was exposed to the virus. But, given that I’d never received a blood transfusion and never used intravenous drugs, I can only assume it was through my work that I contracted hepatitis C. Protocols of the Present It took the AIDS outbreak in the '80s to change medical protocols. Suddenly, there was something out there to be worried about—something beyond hepatitis B. Gloves were required to be worn for everything, not only when changing bandages. Gone were the days of recapping and pocketing used needles. In every patient’s room, there was a red biohazard container so we could dispose of used syringes and needles as soon as we’d injected our patients. In the ‘80s the practice of universal precautions was introduced. This meant not only protecting the patients from ourselves, but also protecting ourselves from the patients. Accepting Reality Unfortunately, for me and many others, these new protocols were too little too late. I found out I had hepatitis C in the early 2000s after donating blood. It was a real challenge for me to accept the news, especially given how I’d contracted it. I was just doing my job. Do I wish we had known more about infections and how viruses were spread back in the ‘70s? Absolutely. But the reality is that the awareness wasn’t there. Somehow I had to come to terms with the diagnosis, even though I looked and felt healthy. To this day, I’ve never had any symptoms. But that hasn’t kept me from getting my blood tested every single year since receiving my diagnosis. That’s the only way for me to keep tabs on my viral load, to know how much of the virus is actually circulating throughout my body. Waiting around for symptoms to appear would have been like playing Russian roulette. It wasn’t until 2010 that my doctor recommended I pursue treatment to eliminate the virus from my system. Treatment was rough. It involved oral medication and an injection I had to give myself every week. Fatigue and other side effects hampered my day-to-day. Throughout treatment, I continued to work and was also caring for my elderly mother. It was a lot to handle, but the Lord gave me the strength to push through. My family and friends also offered support. I remember one day, after an especially tough treatment session, one of my coworkers went out and bought me a sports drink. I’d never been a fan before, but let me tell you, those drinks became my saving grace. They didn’t bring me up to a full 100 percent, but with those drinks I was functional. From that point on, I drank one every day during treatment. What I’ve come to realize as someone living with hepatitis C is that everyone has their own challenges. Working alongside other nurses who had operated under the same conditions as me and who didn’t have the virus, it didn’t seem fair. But there were nurses on staff who were dealing with cancer; there were nurses dealing with diabetes. Everyone has something. It just so happens that my something was hepatitis C. With any serious disease, you’re going to grieve. You’re going to feel sorry for yourself. You’re going to ask: Why me? But at the end of the day, all you can do is face facts and find a source of strength that’s going to help you stick it out. That’s my advice for anyone with hepatitis C—find your strength. Oh, and go get yourself a sports drink. Linda lives in Louisiana and is enjoying retirement after working nearly 40 years as a licensed practical nurse. She’s been free of hepatitis C since June.