Chris Robinson isn’t a spokesperson for needle exchanges and other harm-reduction measures; he’s too busy working his construction job and being a single dad to his 12-year-old son.
But his story is relevant to the current debate around Abbotsford’s harm-reduction bylaw, which outlaws such initiatives and is being reconsidered by city council.
Robinson lives in Abbotsford and is battling hepatitis C, which he believes he contracted from using dirty needles in the late 1980s when he didn’t have access to clean ones.
He was living in Ottawa at the time, when clean needles were difficult to find.
“If somebody happened to have one, there would be five or six of us using it,” Robinson said.
They would use water and alcohol to clean the apparatus before passing the needle to the next person, mistakenly believing this would suffice. It didn’t.
Robinson has long since been clean and sober, and this was the only time in his life that he shared needles. He moved to Vancouver in 1990.
“I still remember walking down the street and somebody in a van pulling up in a van and saying, ‘You want some needles?’ “
This scene is typical of what occurs today, in which mobile units visit communities to hand out clean needles in exchange for used ones. The idea is to reduce the spread of disease, eliminate the burden on the medical system and on individuals, and save lives.
Robinson said he had not even heard of hepatitis C when he occasionally shared needles to shoot cocaine in the period from 1985 to 1990.
He had a brief relapse in 1998, when he almost overdosed on heroin and gave up drugs for good. His son was born not long after, and his life became devoted to him.
But Robinson’s past came back with a vengeance two years ago at the age of 51. His stomach became swollen and hard.
“It was very painful. When I would walk, it felt like all my insides would drop out,” he said.
At first, he was diagnosed with constipation and then cancer of the lymph nodes, but further investigation revealed he was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, caused by a chronic hepatitis C infection.
Because his condition is advanced, he is not on any treatment, but he is not yet on the waiting list for a transplant. Without one, his doctor says he has 10 years left.
“It kind of weighs heavy, but I don’t dwell on it,” he says. “A lot of people don’t believe I’m sick … I’m holding my own.”
Robinson works full-time, but his energy levels and strength aren’t what they used to be. He encourages others to get tested for hepatitis C because testing can lead to early diagnosis, treatment and the hope for a cure.
He is also strongly in favour of needle exchanges because he, more than most, understands the potential impact of sharing needles.
What is hepatitis C?
Hepatitis C is a viral disease that leads to swelling of the liver. Many people who become infected never feel sick and recover completely. If your body is not able to fight off the virus, you may develop chronic hepatitis, which can lead to liver scarring (cirrhosis), liver failure and even liver cancer.
It is spread through blood-to-blood contact, such as by using injection drugs; getting tattoos, piercings, pedicures, manicures or medical procedures without properly sterilized equipment; or having had blood transfusions or received blood products before 1990.
Symptoms can include fatigue, nausea, reduced appetite, abdominal pain and jaundice (yellowing of the skin and eyes).
For more information, visit the Canadian Liver Foundation’s website at liver.ca.