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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

  


     

Face of hepatitis C—Pete Mazula

Fiery firefighter battles hepatitis C, Workers’ Compensation

Denver area firefighter Peter Mazula, 48, has made a living extinguishing flames for 29 years. Now, he’s fanning fires of a different kind.

A decade ago, he learned that he had contracted hepatitis C while helping an accident victim in 1988. Denied Workers’ Compensation coverage, he went to court and ultimately was denied again. So, he decided to take his cause to another branch of government.

Mazula is on the verge of winning Workers’ Compensation coverage for public safety workers contracting hepatitis C in the line of duty. Subject to the signature of Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, SB-06 is set to become Colorado law, due in part to Mazula’s impassioned testimony before both the Colorado Senate and the House, and letters written to every member of the House.

In a surprising move, the Republican-controlled Colorado House passed the measure unanimously. It also breezed through the Democratic-controlled Senate with a better than two to one margin. Upon passage, it will join Workers’ Compensation hepatitis C laws in nine other states. An additional nine states have similar legislation pending.
SB-06 is better than other measures, Mazula said. "This law will be better in two major areas. First, once it is documented that a public safety worker has been exposed to the virus, medication can begin immediately. In some other states, you have to wait until you actually test positive for the disease. Second, there’s a two-year window to help those who may already have been affected. As long as it is determined conclusively that the worker was exposed on the job, Workers’ Compensation benefits will be in force," Mazula said.

 


But, that doesn’t help Mazula. Now awaiting a liver transplant to relieve the disease that is ravaging his body, Mazula is understandably bitter about the toll hepatitis C, and subsequent denial of Workers’ Compensation benefits, has taken on his family. His health insurance and fire department contributions supplement money out of his own pocket to cover his care. "Workers’ Compensation should have been there. That’s what it’s supposed to cover," Mazula added.

"Pete’s efforts not only will provide a much-deserved safety net for Colorado public safety workers, but will help build impetus in other states for similar legislation," said Ann Jesse, executive director of the Hep C Connection, a national hepatitis C support organization based in Denver. Jesse, a hepatitis C survivor who has worked with Mazula to help pass the legislation, added, "He’s an inspiration to those of us on the front lines fighting this disease day in and day out."

Mazula’s nightmare began at a gruesome motorcycle accident in 1988. "There was blood everywhere. I wore rubber gloves but it was evening, and there was little light. I sliced my hand open on something, a piece of steel or glass, I don’t know."

Four years later, he discovered he had hepatitis C. Denied coverage by Workers’ Compensation for lack of proof, he went to court and won the first round. Workers’ Compensation appealed and, ultimately, Mazula lost his court fight.

"The only thing they said about why it was denied is that when I went to the emergency room back in 1988, the nurse there told me the accident victim had track marks on his arms—an obvious warning signal to be on alert for hepatitis C. The appellate court threw out the case citing this evidence as ‘hearsay.’ Essentially, I got denied on a technicality," Mazula noted.

The good news for Mazula is a brighter outlook for other public safety workers exposed to the disease and his ability to serve as an educator. "If the accident had happened today, I would have gotten treatment sooner. Immediate treatment would have helped. I probably wouldn’t need a liver transplant. And if I had found back then the kind of support provided by such organizations as the Hep C Connection, I could have managed my condition – and its emotional impact on my family, co-workers and friends – much more effectively."

Today’s improving treatments would be part of a healthier equation, Mazula said he believes. "The sooner you get in, the better your outcome," he added.

Mazula pointed out that he’s been able to teach people in the fire department about hepatitis C, and, "My testimony before the Colorado Legislature opened up some eyes as well."

 


For now, Mazula has been taken off firefighting calls. He’s a deputy fire marshal, handling building inspections and code enforcement.
Unable to tolerate the side effects of full-blown antiviral treatments, he takes about a quarter-dose of Interferon. It’s enough to stabilize his condition, but ultimately he has no doubt that he will need a new liver.

"I have cirrhosis, advanced liver fibrosis, but so far no signs of liver cancer. I’m on the liver transplant list. My wife, daughter and I talk about it. It’s hard for everybody, just waiting and knowing it’s going to happen."
And waiting is proving very tiring, literally. "I get fatigued really easily as a result of both the disease and the medication. I’m just not me most of the time. But the department’s been great, with guys giving me their comp time and sick time to help out."

Having both won and lost battles in his hepatitis C fight, Peter Mazula still faces the greatest battle of all—the one for his life.
Hepatitis C may affect up to 1 in every 50 Americans, according to statistics provided by the National Institutes of Health. Half likely do not even know they have the disease, which is killing 8,000 to 10,000 people annually in the US; and is the leading cause of liver disease and liver transplants. For more information about Hepatitis C Education Awareness Month or the Hep C Connection, contact: 1-800-522-HEPC (4372); 303-860-0800. For more information about hepatitis C, contact the Hepatitis Help Line: 1-800-390-1202. Or, visit the Hep C Connection online: www.hepc-connection.org, info@hepc-connection.org.

MEDIA CONTACTS:
Hep C Connection
Ann Jesse, Executive Director
Regina Schuler, Assistant Director
Kathy Jensen, Director, Information and Community Outreach
1-800-522-HEPC (4372)
303-860-0800
info@hepc-connection.org

MEDIA CENTER: www.hepc-connection.org/awareness.html
Mark Lusky Communications
Lyn Wazny, 303-424-0210
Heather Lusky/Mark Lusky, 1-800-238-3612; 303-321-2911