“There should be no judgement. All people deserve to be cured of this terrible disease and all people should be treated with care and respect.” – Pauli Gray
If you ran into Pauli Gray walking his two dogs on the streets of San Francisco today, you’d likely notice a pep in his step. An avid musician and neighborhood rock ’n’ roll star, Gray radiates joy. What you probably wouldn’t notice is that he was recently cured of a serious viral infection: hepatitis C.
“It’s an interesting word, ‘cured,’ because I’ll always test antibody positive, but it’s gone,” he says. “It’s gone.”
While the infection may be gone, he still feels its impact. That’s because, unlike many other chronic conditions such as arthritis or cancer, hepatitis C has a largely negative stigma. The disease is typically passed by infected blood. Sharing needles, getting a tattoo or piercing at an unregulated parlor or setting, and, in rare cases, engaging in unprotected sexual contact are all ways to get hepatitis C.
“There’s a lot of social stigma tied to hepatitis C,” Gray says. “We witnessed it before with HIV during the ’80s. This is just my opinion of course, but I think there’s an underlying view of people who do drugs, and back in the ’80s people who did drugs, and gay people, as maybe being somewhat disposable.”
While the stigma surrounding hepatitis C could have been a negative in Gray’s life, he turned it into something positive. He focuses the majority of his time today on treatment education, counseling, and overdose prevention.
“I go out and just try to make this place a little teeny bit better every day,” he says.
Through his advocacy work, Gray stumbled upon a newfound passion of caring for others. He recognizes that he probably wouldn’t have come across this desire if he himself were never diagnosed with the disease. This is especially true because he really had to push to get tested in the first place, mainly because doctors just shrugged off his symptoms.
“I knew that I didn’t feel right,” Gray says, his eyes wide with a sense of despair. “I knew that my previous lifestyle had put me at some risk for hep C. I was suffering from a lot of fatigue and depression and brain fog, so I pushed hard to get tested.”
Once he got a confirmed diagnosis, Gray decided to join a clinical trial. But until a few years ago, treatment was anything but a walk in the park.
“It was very, very difficult,” he says flatly. “I had a lot of suicidal ideation and I’m not like that.”
Realizing he couldn’t put himself or his body through this anymore, he stopped this first treatment method after just six months. Still, he didn’t give up. When a new type of treatment became available, Gray decided to go for it.
“It was a little difficult, but it was a whole other galaxy from the previous treatment, and it worked, and I felt much better within a month,” he says.
These days, one of his goals is to help others heal through treatment. He gives lectures, talks, and hosts training sessions and workshops on hepatitis C, as well as HIV, overdose prevention, harm reduction, and drug use. By sharing his own story, he also encourages others to think about their future.
“‘What am I going do next?’ is a big question,” he says. “I tell my folks, ‘You can feel better in a month,’ and almost invariably they do. It opens a lot of possibilities for the future.”
For the past 15 years — the same amount of time it took him to be diagnosed — Gray’s been using his advocacy work to reassure others that there really is hope. He tells others that getting treated is much better than not getting treated.