Los Angeles, California
Diagnosed with HIV/Hep C in 1987
The following is an excerpt from the Hep Winter 2015 cover story:
The first thing you notice about performer and activist Sherri Lewis is her laugh—a wonderful cackle that usually follows one of her hilarious, self-deprecating remarks about her topsy-turvy six decades of life. But on this October day in Los Angeles, where Lewis has lived since 1999, the laugh is full of pure joy. The reason? It’s the last day of her three months of taking Harvoni, a daily pill to treat the hepatitis C virus (HCV) she’s been living with since she was 17, and now her hep C is undetectable.
“It’s a pretty historic day for me,” she announces. “Of course, I have to be checked again in another 12 weeks to make sure I’m still undetectable and considered cured, according to my doctor.” That would be Judith Currier, MD, MPH, who has been treating Lewis since shortly after she was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. “We’ve been walking this path together for a long time,” Lewis says of herself and Currier. “We’re like a Lifetime TV girly movie!” And then comes that great laugh.
Lewis lived a long time with both HIV and hep C. Among the many lessons of her life, which in the ’80s included the highs of showbiz and the lows of addiction, is the fact that you can live with both viruses if you work with a doctor and take care of yourself—especially today, in an age where HIV has long been treatable and hep C is more easily cured than ever. (Lewis has good reason to have high hopes for her 12-week follow-up; 96 percent of Harvoni takers who also had HIV were still hep C undetectable, hence considered cured, at the 12-weeks-after-treatment mark.)
The road to today for Lewis has been a long one. She grew up in a comfortable New Jersey suburb, singing and dancing professionally in New York City on TV shows for children, and managed by her dad, who sold women’s accessories out of his office in the Empire State Building. “He’d say, ‘If I can sell a handbag, I can sell talent,’” Lewis recalls. “And he was right.” From an early age, Lewis knew she had the stuff to make it big—an exuberant stage presence and a terrific voice. “I took my work seriously even as a kid,” she says. “No one ever told me, ‘Stick to your day job.’”
But her early 1970s Jersey adolescence also was troubled, marked by the breakup of her parents’ marriage and also sexual abuse by someone close to her. In her teens, seeking solace from the pain, she was briefly introduced to injecting heroin. Of course, none of that stopped Lewis. At 18, she moved to New York City to study acting, joined a Ukrainian dance troupe and lived in the East Village, then one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
“You never found your car the way you left it,” she remembers, laughing. “Once a knife was pulled on me, but thankfully nothing happened.” Was she scared? “I had nothing to compare it to except Jersey, which I hated,” she laughs. “I was a pop kid, so I started making my way to clubs,” like the legendary rock hangout Max’s Kansas City, where Lou Reed got turned on to her stage presence. Soon enough, she was in an all-girl punk band called Mande Dahl. “We had songs like ‘Kitchen Bitch’ and ‘Glands Out of Control,’” Lewis recalls with a fond chuckle. “I wore Barbie-doll plastic earrings.”
But shadowing her fun was bad health news. As early as 17, “I felt terrible,” Lewis recalls. “I was falling asleep all the time, burping a lot with a really rotten-egg taste to it.” A doctor tested her liver and told her she had hep C—or what was then called non-A, non-B hepatitis. (Hep C wasn’t discovered until 1989.) “I must have gotten it from my early experimenting with needles,” Lewis assumes. “The doctor said, ‘You can die from this, so you can’t drink.’”
Click here to read the complete story.