We Lost A Great One

We can be a little Orlando. That would be enough.

Welcome to the 6th Annual POSITIVELY AWARE Hepatitis Drug Guide. In the past, I’ve written how this is always one of my favorite things to do each year. This year, however, I write with a heavy heart: Orlando Chávez, a dear friend and fierce hepatitis C advocate, died on Sunday, June 3, 2018. I dedicate this year’s Hepatitis Drug Guide to Orlando.

Orlando was a colleague and a friend, and while I’m admittedly biased as hell towards him, I think it is fair to say that his death is a huge loss to the HCV community: Locally, nationally, and even internationally. Cured of HCV in 2004—and it’s worth noting that this was with interferon and ribavirin, a nightmare concoction of medicine that one had to take for a year with very severe side effects—and based on his experience as a patient and a witness to the poor care he saw others in the community receive, he committed himself to helping others, reducing health disparities, and ending the suffering that comes with viral hepatitis.

And, man, did he! There aren’t enough pages in this issue to list all of his accomplishments, but here’s a snapshot: At the Berkeley Free Clinic he brought HCV testing and education, as well as hepatitis A and B vaccinations, to the underserved. He was a living, breathing embodiment of harm reduction, bringing hepatitis education and support to syringe access programs throughout Berkeley and Oakland, California. He was awarded the Sherri Zeigler Community Service Award from the California Hepatitis Alliance (CalHEP) and as a member of the steering committee of the National Viral Hepatitis Roundtable, he help shaped national policy and awareness. Most recently, he was a Health Systems Navigator for the Glide Foundation’s Health and Harm Reduction Team in San Francisco. All in all, he provided HCV results, health education and linkage to care and treatment for thousands of people living with HCV, and probably trained and developed an equal number of students, peers, and advocates.

But it was his work at OASIS, a clinic in Oakland, founded by Dr. Diana Sylvestre, where Orlando shined. From its beginning, OASIS reached out to and treated the underserved. Diana and her staff cured people who were considered incurable: Poor people, people of color, the homeless, and people who used drugs. This is where he went for care and treatment, sat in support groups, and became a peer advocate. His charm, wit, and intelligence were a hit over there, so soon he became staff: As lead health educator, Orlando shepherded hundreds (if not thousands) of people through hepatitis C treatment and helped them get into drug treatment and on methadone. In the U.S., with our problems with mass homelessness, our opioid crisis, and our HCV epidemic, OASIS is a model for providing care and services to the affected communities. There are so many people responsible for this success—and I may write about that one day in this magazine—but today is about Orlando, and he is as responsible for this success as anybody.

So what can we do? It is easy to get lost in our grief over his loss or frozen in anger towards a health system that devalues and stigmatizes the communities that OASIS and Orlando cared so deeply about. The one thing we can do is to continue his fight for health equity and a cure for all those living with HCV. We can work to end the stigma surrounding people who use drugs, and fight to remove all sobriety restrictions that exist in state Medicaid programs and other insurance providers. We can expand harm reduction and provide safe injecting supplies to those living with, or at risk for, HCV. We can work to end the structural violence of a U.S. political economic system that fosters poverty, racism, and homelessness with infectious diseases and leads to so much suffering.

We can be a little more like Orlando. That would be enough.

Finally, as in years past I’m grateful to Jeff Berry and Enid Vázquez for their editorial support, and to Rick Guasco for designing the issue. This year in particular, they were all extremely supportive and made it very easy for me to work on this issue. In addition to this year’s hard copy of the magazine, we will have additional articles and pieces online, from a summary of the AASLD/IDSA treatment recommendations to brief pieces on HCV testing and HCV treatment in people who use drugs. We will also feature articles from past issues that are still of use today. You can find them at here, on the magazine’s webite.

In solidarity,

Andrew Reynolds