Congressman Treating His HCV
Hank Johnson won't back down
Dec 14 2009
By Bob Keefe
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
WASHINGTON - He is a Buddhist who serves on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, strives for world peace but doesn't shy away from a fight.
He is thoughtful and introspective, but also can spout off surprising statements, like when he declared that angry opposition to health care reform could lead to people in hoods running Ku Klux Klan-style across the country.
He is a former lawyer and judge who is comfortable in the halls of Congress, but also is at ease at the rickety tables at Wilson's, a soul food joint that is among his favorite restaurants in Washington.
And now, through experimental treatment, he is one of only about half of the nearly 4 million people afflicted with hepatitis C who have successfully beat back the disease - at least so far - though it's caused him plenty of suffering.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, 55, is something of an enigma.
"I think if you could say what drives me, it's the middle ground, the middle way," the two-term Democrat from Lithonia said, echoing a fundamental Buddhist principle.
"I don't get carried [away] when things are going greatā and don't get carried [away] when things are going badly, because both of those things are going to happen," he said. "So, therefore, the middle path is the best place to be."
Third treatment working
Last week, Johnson revealed the worst thing he's ever had to grapple with, hepatitis C.
He said he doesn't know how he contracted the potentially fatal, blood-borne disease that can ravage the liver. He first learned he had it in 1998, but didn't publicly disclose it until an interview with the AJC last week amid increasing speculation about his health.
Two previous treatments didn't work, Johnson said. But a third treatment involving an extended regimen of a noxious cocktail of the drugs interferon and ribivarin has left him free of the virus for nearly a year. He plans to finish his treatment in February, giving him time to regain his health before starting to campaign for re-election. (from Jules: I'm assuming this 'experimental' approach is extended therapy: 72 weeks peg/rbv, which I personally used 10 years ago when I was the first peg/rbv coinfection cure).
Side effects of the treatment have been rough. They've included dramatic weight loss, fatigue and depression, Johnson said. It also tends to put him in a mental fog that sometimes leaves him at a loss for words and grasping to complete a thought.
"The medication has all types of side effects," he said. "Some people don't experience any. I have experienced a multitude."
A time to fight
A former DeKalb County commissioner, Johnson describes himself a "classic liberal." In a class for freshmen members of Congress, he said his goal was world peace. He became an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq.
Yet his religious and world views can belie Johnson's convictions about conflict.
He proudly recounts how he was in 10 fights when he was growing up - winning all but one of them, he said. One of his role models is former U.S. Rep. Carl Vinson, the longtime Georgia Democrat known for championing defense spending before World War II.
"There are some pacifists out there who don't believe in violence for anything - like Jesus Christ - but I'm not one of them," Johnson said. "Never will I support a war of choice like the Iraq invasionā but I'm ready to fight when it's time to fight."
Stands by comment
Now in his third year in Congress, the typically soft-spoken Johnson's accomplishments in Washington are relatively slim so far. But he is gaining a name for himself as some not afraid to speak his mind.
"He is very committed, and he takes himself very seriously," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat and the senior member of Georgia's U.S. House delegation. "You see him on floor, off the floor, in our caucuses, he stands up" and makes his thoughts be known, Lewis said.
Occasionally too loudly, critics say.
In September, after South Carolina Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson made his infamous "You lie" outburst, Johnson said it was indicative of racial undertones and anger among some health reform opponents.
Such anger, he said, could lead to "folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again, riding through the countryside intimidating people."
The statement - which Johnson still sticks by today - incensed many of his constituents and others.
"He went out and embarrassed the hell out of every Georgian," said Bob Hillis, secretary of the DeKalb Fraternal Order of Police.
For the past several months the police group has been feuding with Johnson over the congressman's support of Troy Anthony Davis, a death row inmate who in 1991 was convicted of murdering a Savannah police officer.
"I'm really disappointed in him," said William Peacock of the police officers' group. "We endorsed him and we worked very hard to get him elected," but probably won't again.
Johnson's KKK remark so upset Republican businesswoman Liz Carter that it helped convince her to run for his congressional seat in 2010.
"What he did was create racial tension," said Carter, a technology industry recruiter who has never held office before. "I was very offended."
No stranger in town
Coming to Washington in 2006 was a homecoming of sorts for Johnson.
He was born in Washington, but left in 1972 to attend Clark College in Atlanta and later Texas Southern University, where he got his law degree. For more than 20 years, he practiced law in partnership with his wife, Mereda Davis Johnson, in Decatur and also served as a magistrate in DeKalb County.
His mother was a schoolteacher. His father was a high-ranking official in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, before - as Johnson describes it - alcoholism and "the demons of his [father's] childhood" pushed him into retirement.
A day before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Johnson's parents attended a dinner at the White House, the congressman said. Later, when Kennedy's body lay in state at the U.S. Capitol, his mother took him there to pay the family's respects.
"That was the first time I ever went to the Capitol," he said.
When Johnson was first diagnosed with hepatitis C in 1998, his doctor gave him 20 years to live.
Johnson said he decided then and there that he would accomplish everything he wanted to in life, beginning with becoming a DeKalb commissioner and concluding with becoming a member of Congress.
"I could die tonight and die with a smile on my faceā because basically, I don't have any other goals in life," Johnson said.
The final one, he said, "was to be a congressman."