Keeping in touch is key to successful hepatitis C care

January 27, 2023

When Timothy Rodriguez first came to Venice Family Clinic for a check-up, he had already stopped using substances and was on a journey to recovery. So when Dr. Jessica Stroik told him that he had tested positive for hepatitis C, Rodriguez was determined to beat it.

“Even though it’s a life-threatening disease, the Clinic told me not to panic, that they could cure it,” he said. “And they got me treatment quick.”

Dr. Stroik referred Rodriguez to Leslie O’Hara, hepatitis C care coordinator with the Clinic’s Common Ground program, which offers a range of prevention services, including testing and care coordination for hep C and HIV with support from Gilead Sciences, Inc. Leslie took care of the prior authorization for Rodriguez’s medication, explained to him the importance of taking it as directed, and scheduled his follow-up appointments for lab work and to pick up his medication.

“We were constantly in touch with Tim. That’s the main thing that makes people successful in their treatment. We make sure people know that they can call or stop in any time, that we’re here to help,” O’Hara said. “Tim was the kind of person who took his meds every day and did everything we told him to do. But if I don’t hear from someone after they start meds, I’ll go looking for them.”

Asking for help

Rodriguez had experienced multiple traumas growing up in Ventura, including the deaths of his father and older brother and his mother’s struggles with addiction. Rodriguez began using substances at age 11, was first arrested at age 17 and was in a gang at age 19. By the time he was 21, Rodriguez was in state prison, where he started doing what he called “heavier drugs.” When he was released, he began dating someone who injected drugs, and so he did, too. That’s when Rodriguez believes he was infected with hep C, though he didn’t know it at the time. What he did know was that he didn’t want to continue living in a cycle of being in and out of prison and using substances to cope with his unresolved trauma.

“I was sitting in cell again from robbing cars and prayed to God to send me to a recovery program,” he said. “Someone I had been dating died while in I was in prison. I didn’t have much hope left. But I asked probation for help, to go to recovery. Thankfully I got a suspended sentence and was sent to the Salvation Army.”

Determined to change his life, Rodriguez did well in the Salvation Army’s program, which requires participants to be sober in order to stay. He had been there for 9 months before he was diagnosed with hep C by Venice Family Clinic, and diligently participated in his treatment. By the time his 24-week blood test came around – the one that would tell him whether the hep C was gone from his system for good – Rodriguez was out of the rehabilitation program and in sober living, and looking forward to moving on with his life. So when the test came back positive, he was devastated and ended up relapsing.

But none of this deterred the Venice Family Clinic team from helping Rodriguez. Dr. Stroik prescribed a different medication, and O’Hara made sure he had everything he needed to be successful the second time around. And he was.

A new beginning

Today, Rodriguez is sober and working for the Salvation Army as a live-in residential manager at its rehabilitation center in Santa Monica. He has many responsibilities, including making sure residents go to work therapy, helping to process donations and enforcing rules. He also organizes rewards for residents, such as trips to amusement parks.

“It’s really positive being able to help people restore their lives,” Rodriguez said. “I try to send Leslie and Common Ground as many people as I can to get them cured of hep C, and they have been able to help them all. The Clinic goes above and beyond to make sure people are comfortable – especially Leslie. She was always checking in with me, always on it, I feel to make me a better person. It has been almost 7 years since I first met Leslie, and I still talk to her often. I can chat with her like a friend.”

Frequent check-ins and open invitations to talk like these have made for an effective hep C care coordination and navigation program at Common Ground.

“My patients know they can talk to me about anything, and just knowing that they have someone to talk to is a big part of the success of the program,” O’Hara said. “You create a bond with people.”