After a decades-long battle with hepatitis C, retired Smithfield police officer Kurt Beach has been pronounced cured.
Beach, 56, contracted the virus in January 1988 when he used mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in an attempt to save the life of a baby with a bloody breathing tube.
The girl, who was born with spina bifida, had received several blood transfusions, more than one of which was later tracked to a contaminated source, Beach explained to the Daily Press.
This month, after four years of experimental drug treatment, Beach was pronounced cured by his doctor, hepatologist R. Todd Stravitz.
"My eyes filled with tears. I was completely happy. It was a great day for me," said Beach.
The Daily Press reports that Stravitz, medical director of liver transplantation at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, is part of a research group involving six academic centers across the country. The group came up with "a relatively uniform protocol for transplant patients" for the study sanctioned by the Institutional Review Board.
The FDA approved the drug combination — interferon, ribavirin and the newer telaprevir — for use in non-transplant patients almost two years ago, explained Stravitz. Since then the combination has achieved a cure rate of 75 percent in that population, a number Stravitz expects will improve to 90 percent within the next three years with the new generation of antiviral drugs.
However, the use of the drugs had not been tested or approved for post-transplant patients and was considered dangerous.
"Kurt was the first recipient, our guinea pig. He was the perfect person, he's such a bright fellow who follows directions exactly," said Stravitz. "The treatment went off without a hitch."
Prior to his successful treatment with the three-drug combination, Beach was dubbed a "non-responder."
"We had him in numerous clinical trials, but we were never able to keep him at non-detectable levels," said Stravitz.
His first time as a guinea pig was in 1995, when he was one of the first to use interferon injections. They were effective in keeping the virus in check, but did nothing to eliminate it.
"It alone makes you feel terrible," said Beach.
On another occasion, doctors tried photopheresis in which they took blood, exposed the white cells to ultraviolet light, and then reintroduced them to his body.
He's also had his gallbladder removed and undergone five liver biopsies.
By 2008, Beach was desperately ill, the crises coming closer and closer together, his wife, Kathie, recalled to the Daily Press.
In spring of the following year, his doctors sent him home to die. Two days later, on Easter Sunday, after spending six months on the transplant list and having three "dry runs" (the term for false alarms, when promised organs don't work out), Beach received part of a liver, "an amazing match," from a living donor.
The couple point out that he wouldn't have survived the wait for a deceased donor, and Stravitz observed that VCU is one of the few centers in the country that works with living donors.
"I feel the Lord's hand in it from the beginning," Beach said, crediting his deep faith with helping him through the ordeal.
The match came in response to an email Kathie sent to friends and family telling of their need. It made the rounds on the Internet and the transplant center was inundated with so many people getting tested for a match that staff was overwhelmed.
"I think we broke the record," Beach said with a grin. Kathie adds, "Several went on to donate for others. At least three other transplants came out of it — and a couple of others found they had life-threatening diseases and so it saved their lives."
The reprieve only lasted a few months. Though the virus always returns in transplant patients, according to Stravitz, it usually takes years before causing serious damage. After just two years, Beach's disease was at stage 3, which would normally take 20 years to develop.
"It caused major fatigue and loss of memory, the cognitive processes were affected, which in my profession couldn't be tolerated," said Beach. Kathie acted as his memory at those times when his failed.
For nine months, Beach and his care team fought to get him the experimental drug therapy.
"I knew that if I didn't try I would be very short term. I would need another transplant," he said.
"It was my fourth or fifth experimental treatment. I've signed so many waivers. It's all for the purpose of being able to help someone else, to help others and really affect the quality of life."
"They were taking a chance with me," he added. "Post-transplant is really iffy. Kidneys can fail or there can be other health problems. … They'd thrown everything at me but the kitchen sink. This was the kitchen sink."
Just eight days after completing the experimental treatment, his blood tested clear of the virus for the first time in two decades. And six months later, Stravitz called to confirm the good news.
"It's very rare for it to come back now," he said.
When Beach first received the diagnosis of the debilitating liver disease, in 1995, several years after being exposed, he was close-lipped about it. At the time it was akin to a death sentence. "People were afraid to be around you — like AIDS. They are quick to form judgments, they're quick to categorize," he said. "Also, I was a public figure."
He was embarrassed, but he also feared others' ignorance — of the cause of the disease, and of how it's transmitted. Since then, he has become an advocate, lobbied the General Assembly for recourse on worker's compensation for first responders, and shared his story in many forums.
Now working as a civilian crime prevention specialist for the Smithfield Police Department, from which he recently retired as a lieutenant investigator, Beach is fighting a new battle for disability payments from the state. Meanwhile, he's enormously grateful for his new lease on life. His medication regimen has been reduced from 35 daily doses to just the anti-rejection drugs, and the family is planning their first holiday in years.
It's not just Beach who has changed. Since 1992, blood screening for donors is required — that's how Beach learned he had the virus — and first responders are issued with protective equipment and instructed to seek immediate medical help if they come into contact with bodily fluids. And, advances in drugs have led to growing cure rates for Hepatitis C, which left untreated is a major cause of liver cancer.
"It's exciting. I think we've changed Kurt's life. I just wish we'd gotten it to him five years earlier. It's hard to fathom what these transplant patients go through," said Stravitz.