Hepatitis A almost killed Kevin (28)

I was lying in the observation unit between terminally ill patients.

Hepatitis A is a virus that can also be passed on during sex. It is becoming more common among men who have sex with men. Although the virus can make you really ill for a couple of months, your body is usually able to fight it off. But to do that you need to be healthy.

Things went quite differently for Kevin. He ended up in hospital with complications from a hepatitis A infection and an unhealthy lifestyle. The damage: a liver that had almost stopped working, two kidneys that were about to stop functioning, a heart that was severely weakened, and almost no resistance to infection.

How did things get that bad? “It was my lifestyle that made the hepatitis A infection take hold in my body. During that time I was really living on the edge. Partying every day as if it were my last. A lot of alcohol, lots of drugs, hardly any sleep and sometimes no food at all. I had nowhere to live either.”

Gone all yellow

“I’d had the infection for seven months. Even though I was completely exhausted, I didn’t realise I was ill. I’d lost my partner, and thought that the lack of energy came from all the grief. I was so tired that I couldn’t even get myself to go to the doctor. My mother was the one who finally got me there. I was visiting her, and she said ‘Kevin, you’ve gone all yellow, you have to go to hospital’. I tried to just play it down with ‘Oh, it’s been like this for a couple of weeks’, but fortunately she didn’t take no for an answer. And the doctor sent me straight to the emergency department.

At the hospital, they couldn’t actually do anything for me. Medication [to suppress the symptoms of hepatitis A – ed.] would do too much damage to my liver. The only thing they could do was wait. They gave me a lot of fluids, because I was also very dehydrated.

I lay there in the observation unit between terminally ill patients, a nurse checking my blood pressure every half an hour. At some point, the liver values started to go down. The doctor wasn’t satisfied yet, but at least it gave some hope of recovery.“

Six-month recovery

It took him almost six months to recover. “I was put on a very strict diet for six months. Salt, sugar, fats, almost anything could have a disastrous effect. I had some tests done a year after the infection. The doctors had told me that there may be chronic kidney and liver damage, but it turned out that my organs weren’t damaged at all. I’m not 100% fit yet, because my immune system and energy levels aren’t yet back to normal. They say that might take about five years.”

If someone is diagnosed with hepatitis A, anyone who lives with them is tested for the virus (and vaccinated, if necessary). Kevin was very relieved to find out that no one he lived with, or had had sex with, was infected with the virus.

Kicking the habit

The whole experience has encouraged him to become healthier. “I’ve admitted to myself that I was addicted to alcohol and drugs. I promised my family that I would be clean for a year and that's what I did. It was a very difficult year. But I’m really glad I did it. Life is so much better now. I’ve learnt to enjoy little things, like seeing my nieces and nephews grow up and chatting to people when I’m working at The Web gay bar. There used to really be something missing in my life. Now I eat healthy food and sleep more. I still like to have a drink, but do it much less and drink water in between.”  

Kevin is in the running for the title Mister Leather 2020. If he wins, he hopes to be able to use his story to encourage other men to look after themselves better. “Lots of gay men have a lifestyle that revolves around partying. That’s fun for a while, but it does have consequences. You can’t put such a burden on your body all the time, that’s the reality.”

NB: You can be vaccinated against hepatitis A. There isn’t a vaccine for an unhealthy lifestyle though - that’s something you have to do for yourself. If you’re not able to, there are several places where you can get help. For problems with chemsex, it’s best to go to Sexntina.nl. Every Wednesday you can chat on the website with an ‘expert by experience’, someone who’s been in the situation themselves. You’ll also find information there about breaking your drug or alcohol habit or learning to manage your use. Plus a list of specialised services where you can get help.

Editor’s note

Man tot Man regularly interviews men about how they protect themselves against HIV and STIs. We think it’s important that people get the right information and think about how they want to protect themselves. We hope that reading these varied personal experiences will help. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of Man tot Man.