Personal motivation

The experiences that led caregivers and two people living with hepatitis to appear together on the cover

After a pandemic’s isolation, photographing the cover of Positively Aware was a chance for the hepatitis linkage-to-care team to connect in person with Janice Brockman and Eddie Mendez, two of the people they helped treat and cure (see “Living with Hepatitis C: Stories of stigma and the search for a cure”).

“I enjoyed the opportunity,” said Thomas Ambelang, HCV linkage-to-care coordinator. “Eddie has always been wonderful to work with, and due to the COVID pandemic, despite working with Janice around treatment for approximately a year, I never had the good fortune to actually meet her. Due to the pandemic, this was the first time in a year where the HCV team had been able to be in the same room at the same time, something we once took for granted.”

In part, it was gratitude that prompted Mendez to participate in the photo shoot. “Helping Tom, who has been so gracious, empathetic and informed, motivated me,” Mendez, who was treated for HCV in 2019, said, “and if I can help one person, then that’s always a good thing.”

For Brockman, taking part in the photo shoot was a chance to offer reassurance to people who might be where she’s been. She received treatment December 2020 through February of this year. “I wanted to be of help to someone else facing the challenges of having hepatitis C, who might be afraid,” she said. “I would highly recommend getting treatment as soon as possible. I felt so much better after being treated. It may sound scary, but the treatment goes by fast and l had no side effects.”

As an HCV community engagement specialist at Howard Brown, Sam Forsythe, one of the cover story’s co-writers, also wanted to offer reassurance of her own. “I want to show the kind of people we are, hopefully demonstrate our approachability in our photos since care teams and medical settings can often be intimidating or uneasy environments for many people,” she said.

“Although they might not think they’ve had any risks of HCV in their lives, the consequences of an undiagnosed infection are severe enough to warrant a test even if you don’t think it could be positive,” Forsythe added. “And if it is a positive result, take heart in the fact that those effects happen slowly, and there are ways to get these treatments wherever you are. Some states make it more difficult, but no matter who you are this is treatable, and regardless of what you do, you deserve the treatment.”

Taking part in the photo shoot had deeply personal significance for co-writer Alaa Wasfi, RN, BSN. “It wasn’t so much as being photographed as much as to take part in something bigger than myself that spreads hope and awareness.” she said. “During the pandemic last year, my grandmother in Iraq passed away from hepatitis and cirrhosis complications.”

Her experience adds a poignancy to her message for people living with hepatitis C: “Start somewhere. Anywhere. Any small step you take toward your health will accumulate in time, and benefit you eventually. Your hepatitis C and your health conditions do not define who you are. Reach out for help because somewhere out there, there is someone who can extend a hand or perhaps feels the same way as you do. There is no shame, and it’s never too late.”

Chicago-based photographer John Gress photographed the cover, assisted by Brian Guzman.