Calgary

Calgary doctor who survived 'silent killer' Hep C urges adults get tested

After nearly dying from a liver-destroying virus, Calgarian Dr. Greg Powell remembers the moment when he put his foot on the floor and said, "Oh my goodness, I feel normal."

Greg Powell, co-founder of STARS, has 'tremendous desire to pay it forward' after years of illness

Dr. Greg Powell has dedicated much of his life to helping people. Now he's speaking out about his own struggles with hepatitis C in hopes others get tested for the potentially deadly disease that is now more easily treated. (AFP/Getty Images, Greg Powell)

After nearly dying from a liver-destroying virus, Dr. Greg Powell remembers the moment when he put his foot on the floor and said, "Oh my goodness, I feel normal."

"I didn't think that would ever happen again," Powell said. "You look at life a different way, smell the roses a new way. You have a tremendous desire to pay it forward, a gratitude for all the things that were done to save your life."

Powell struggled for 15 years to diagnose the problems he was having in the 1980s and 1990s. Then he spent another two decades battling the illness, hepatitis C.

"I didn't know I had anything at first," he said.

Powell has long been driven to help people. With his wife, he founded STARS air ambulance service out of Calgary. He now volunteers with the Canadian Liver Foundation's Calgary branch.

Ahead of World Hepatitis Day on Saturday, he wanted to speak about his experience to encourage others of his generation to get tested for the virus.

"I remember distinctly thinking, 'This is not going well. This may be the illness that's going to take my life and I better be prepared for that,'" Powell said.

Symptoms not obvious

Last month, new medical guidelines were released, saying that those born between 1945 and 1975 should be tested even if they show no symptoms.

"Hepatitis C, I guess you could call it 'a silent killer' in many ways," said Dr. Mark Swain, director of University of Calgary's gastroenterology and hepatology division.

"The vast majority of people have no symptoms and if they have symptoms, really they're more like the symptoms that people have in normal life, like fatigue."

Symptoms sometimes take decades to show up, and even infected people can have normal liver test results for a long time, Swain said.

"I think to have a one-time test to make sure that you haven't been exposed would be totally reasonable," he said.

The rate of hep C is almost three per cent among Canadians of this generation, whereas it's less than one per cent among the general population, the physician said.

They may have contracted the virus through sexual activity or drug use and never displayed symptoms, Swain said.

Dr. Mark Swain is the acting head of the University of Calgary gastroenterology, immunology and gastrointestinal research group. (Reid Southwick/CBC)

Others, like Powell, contracted the virus through blood transfusions, life-saving measures for many but before 1992, those came with the risk of hepatitis C infection.

Powell received multiple blood transfusions for his hemophilia, which impairs the blood's ability to clot. He had many transfusions, however, well before donated blood was tested for hep C , a practice that rolled out in Canada in 1992. 

The hepatitis C virus was discovered in 1989.

Powell was diagnosed a few years later, after more than a decade of doctors running tests, trying to determine the cause of his mysterious symptoms.

Untreated hep C 'will eventually take your life'

But Powell said even with a diagnosis, he was told he'd be fine because the symptoms were so minimal.

"Of course we now know very differently than that," Powell said. "Over time, it's a very liver-damaging virus and will eventually take your life as a result of liver failure if you don't either have a transplant or take the medication."

By 2012, Powell was told he needed a liver transplant and soon, and he knew he may die from his illness. He was moved from Alberta to Vancouver for better chances at a transplant and treatment.

Then a new drug — a potential cure — started being tested.

"By the time this clinical trial came along with these new medications, I was very close to being terminal, and needed it quite badly at that point," Powell said.

But he didn't die. Within weeks of taking the medication, the virus was gone.

'Horrific' treatments replaced

The new treatments, now covered by some provincial health plans, are a remarkable improvement, Swain said.

"The treatment used to be quite horrific actually," he said. "It was using injectable essentially medicines that had a lot of side-effects and really were quite challenging for people to finish —and with a relatively lowish success rate of curing people."

The new medication is an almost symptom-free cure. Often it's a pill a day for roughly eight weeks and the virus is gone, Swain said.

The hepatitis C test is covered by provincial health care plans.

But according to the guidelines published by the Canadian Association for the Study of the Liver, more than 250,000 Canadians have the disease but an estimated 40 to 70 per cent are unaware they have it.

"You should get tested for hepatitis C if you're in the baby boomer cohort," Powell said, referring to a generation that falls into the age range at risk. "You just may not know you're harbouring the virus, and it's very slowly eroding your liver."


With files from Reid Southwick.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this article suggested everyone born between 1945 and 1975 was a baby boomer. In fact, only a portion of the at-risk age group qualifies as a baby boomer.
    Jul 30, 2018 11:48 AM MT