Vietnam War veterans are more likely to contract hepatitis C virus than any other veterans, and 65-year-old Joe Benko was no exception to the statistic.
Vietnam War veterans are more likely to contract hepatitis C virus (HCV) than any other veterans, and 65-year-old Joe Benko was no exception to the statistic.
The Allentown, PA native, who served in the US Armed Forces from 1969 to 1971, was first diagnosed in the early 1990s while donating blood. After Benko received a letter stating he had contracted HCV, he went to his family physician to have his diagnosis confirmed.
“I was shocked and devastated,” Benko said. “I couldn’t believe the news because I didn’t feel, nor did I have, symptoms that a virus was inside of me, other than fatigue.”
Benko, who had been experiencing fatigue, chalked it up to the gradual process of getting older.
“I thought as you get older you get tired at the end of the day,” Benko said. “I would just rest after work, never realizing that these were hightail signs that were early on for hepatitis C.”
Once a physician confirmed Benko’s diagnosis, he was advised to see a gastroenterologist.
“At that time, nobody knew a lot about it [HCV], so they gave me some VHS tapes and some brochures to educate myself on the disease,” Benko said.
Like many others, Benko was completely clueless on what hepatitis C was, and when he was enlisted in the military he was not tested for the disease.
“I don’t think they even gave it a designation,” Benko said. “They had hepatitis A and B. Actually, they called it hepatitis question mark. In the early 1990s they delegated a ‘C’ acronym to it, and that’s when they started bringing awareness.”
Although Benko is unable to pinpoint exactly when he contracted the virus, he believes it most likely happened when he had a blood transfusion as a child, or from vaccinations required during the Vietnam War.
Growing up in Chicago, IL, Benko described himself as a very active and hyper kid who never cared for wearing shoes. One warm day, he was running around outside and cut his foot badly. The incident resulted in him requiring a blood transfusion. Additionally, the procedures being used by the military at the time were another indicator of when he could have possibly contracted HCV.
During this time, treatment options for hepatitis were interferon-alfa, and later ribavirin and interferon. Although this combination is much more effective, it comes with debilitating side effects, which some describe as the worst flu you could imagine.
“The treatments that were available at the time were kind of scary, and some of the adverse conditions were kind of scary,” Benko said. “I was afraid it would make me feel worse than what I had felt.”
Instead, Benko chose to take a homeopathic approach to combat the disease naturally.
“I changed my diet,” Benko said. “I used herbal supplements, like milk thistle, things like that to flush the liver out.”
Unfortunately, after undergoing periodic liver tests conducted by his family physician, Benko was told that the natural approach didn’t seem to be working.
“They said, ‘Joe, if this had been working we would see better readings in your blood test. You should really try a more proactive approach with better treatment, because it’s not improving and if you thought it was, it would have shown on your test,’” Benko said.
During this time, Benko was working in maintenance and had to be careful so if he cut himself, he did not transfer his blood to anyone. Furthermore, since there remains a stigma surrounding HCV, Benko kept his status private and didn’t tell anyone at work.
To stop himself from getting caught up in the woes of his disease, Benko chose to keep a positive attitude.
“My thought is attitude is everything and I’ve always had a positive attitude,” Benko said. “In college we took a psychology/sociology class, and one of the things that stuck with me was, if you put a circle of people together and you throw all your problems in the center, 9 chances out of 10 you would take back your problems when you saw other people’s problems. That’s how I looked at it.”
It wasn’t until Benko married his wife, Janice, and they moved into a new neighborhood that things began to change. The Benkos’ neighbor happened to be a physician, and over the years they became close friends.
Once Benko shared his HCV status in confidence, his neighbor insisted that he look at all of Benko’s health records.
“One rainy afternoon he sat there at our dining room table and went over everything,” Benko said. “He said I needed to get a biopsy of my liver.”
Since Benko’s physician was working with a pharmaceutical company, he had heard about new drugs on the horizon. Benko went to a university hospital outside of Philadelphia and ended up enrolled in a clinical trial in 2013.
Initially, there was some concern that Benko would not get onto the trial.
“I had to do a biopsy and then I had to do an endoscopy,” Benko said. “This trial was looking for candidates, it was sort of a wish list if you could get on it. I became diabetic and I was concerned that being diabetic would be a deterrent for me to be picked for this trial.”
Benko, who wanted to get cured, was desperate to be chosen for the trial because his liver biopsy revealed that mild cirrhosis was starting to form, and he saw that his health was getting worse.
Although he and his wife thought for sure he would be picked, they were devastated to hear that he had not been chosen right away. However, after a lottery system he was chosen a couple weeks later. His regimen consisted of 1 pill a day for a 12-week period.
“Every morning at 8 o’clock, I would take my pills at the same time I had breakfast,” Benko said. “I structured myself that way, so that every 24 hours I would have it in my bloodstream again. I tried to do my part, as well as the pharmaceutical company was doing their part.”
A few weeks after completing the trial, Benko’s viral load dropped dramatically and right before Christmas 2013, Benko received the news that he was cured.
“I was so excited,” Benko recalled. “It was the best Christmas present that I could have ever gotten.”
Since then, Benko has retired and taken up standup comedy. He even graduated from the American Comedy Institute in Manhattan. His dream is to perform on cruise ships while traveling around the world with his wife.
Benko’s biggest advice is for everyone to get tested, especially Baby Boomers, and Vietnam veterans who are more likely to have the virus. Additionally, there are newer medications available with little to no side effects and that have 90% cure rates.
Hepatitis C is a silent disease, it’s something that’s within you and you don’t know about it unless you get tested,” Benko said. “I gave blood to help people, and through helping people I got a cure to help myself.
“If you have it there are programs, there’s clinical educators out there. That was one of the most important things that was lacking when I was diagnosed with it; there were no support groups. But now there are hep C programs, there’s all kinds of people to help educate you."
Although Benko didn’t seek help from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) when he had HCV, the VA announced in February that it would cover hepatitis C cures for all veterans.
“I think we’re on track now that there’s a cure out there,” Benko said. “That we can get everybody cured. My main goal in life now is to help people bring awareness to hep C.”