Natalie Cole: Heroin led me to hepatitis C

/ Source: TODAY books

In her second memoir, “Love Brought Me Back,” singer Natalie Cole, daughter of legendary Nat “King” Cole, shares the story of her sudden diagnosis of hepatitis C and her subsequent need for a kidney transplant. An excerpt.

Chapter two: New Year's Eve, 2007
I'm no square — my friends will tell you that — and I love to party, but my favorite way to party on New Year's Eve is church, especially Faithful Central, the praise-and-worship congregation that took over the Forum, former home of the Los Angeles Lakers.

My whole crew accompanied me. My girlfriends Benita and Tammy were there, and so was my son, Robbie, who, at age thirty, showed, among other talents, his late father's great gift for preaching. My aunt Marie and uncle Kearney were also there, along with my friend Quaford, my brother from another mother.

I usually attend the Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in South Central L.A., a smaller and more intimate congregation, but on this night I wanted to experience the full-tilt gospel joy, the higher-than-high energy of Kurt Carr's magnificent choir, the heart-stopping rhythms and spine-tingling riffs of sacred singing. Along with thousands of fellow believers, I wanted to wave my arms and stomp my feet, feel that Holy Ghost power, and thank God for this past year and the year ahead, a year filled with so many possibilities and so much promise. After the services, I arrived back home in a state of spiritual renewal. I could not have been happier.

A good deal of my happiness came from the record I was making, “Still Unforgettable,” a follow-up to “Unforgettable … with Love,” the multi-Grammy-winning record that revitalized my career in 1990. “Unforgettable … with Love” was a beautiful and magical reunion with my father, who had died at age forty-six in 1965, nine days after my fifteenth birthday.

I've always adored my father's music, but ever since I'd started singing, whether it was while I was still a student at the University of Massachusetts or professionally, I avoided Dad's material. I was determined to create my own identity. My first hits, in fact, were straight-up rhythm and blues. My voice was compared to Aretha Franklin's, though, for my money, no one compares to Aretha. By the time I approached my forties, I had the self-assurance to approach all the genres I love so deeply: R & B, rock, jazz, and pop. My dad bridged jazz and pop with such aplomb that, even with my newfound confidence, I was hesitant. But I did it, and the result changed my musical life. “Unforgettable … with Love” sold some fourteen million copies.

Returning to the “Unforgettable” concept brought back the thrill of reuniting with my father in the recording studio. On the original album, through the miracle of modern engineering, I had sung with him on the title track. This time I wanted to try a different kind of song, not as melancholy as "Unforgettable," but upbeat and whimsical. So I chose "Walkin' My Baby Back Home." What could be sweeter?

Happily, my mind was on music. After two and a half unsuccessful marriages — two and a half because the third had recently ended in an annulment — romance was a distant concept. I was more than content to concentrate on family, friends, and career.

Following some preliminary work on the record in January, I scheduled a routine doctor's appointment in early February. I had a hernia that required minor surgery. So I went to my general practitioner, Dr. Maurice Levy, for blood work before the operation. He said he'd call only if there were any problems.

I was in the recording studio when, in fact, he did call.

"Natalie," he said. "Your blood's not normal. I want you to see a kidney specialist."

"Is it serious?"

"Can't tell at this point. But let's take every precaution."

I went to see the kidney specialist, Dr. Joel Mittleman, to whom I will be forever indebted. He took additional tests. When he called with the results, he sounded worried.

"It's hepatitis. You need to see a liver specialist."

Okay.

I took a deep breath and called my sister Cooke, my best friend.

"I have hepatitis," I said.

"Which kind?" asked Cooke, who was five years older than me and, as far as I'm concerned, knowledgeable about — well, just about everything. A great believer in homeopathy, Cooke advocated natural remedies.

"He didn't say what kind," I answered.

"Well, hepatitis comes in different flavors."

"He didn't say anything about chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry," I said, trying to keep things light.

"You'll be fine, Sweetie," Cooke assured me, using my family nickname. "Just call me after you see the liver man."

The liver man was Dr. Graham Woolf. I gave more blood, and he took more tests. He was a great guy — handsome and kind. But even with those wonderful qualities, he did not have good news. I sat in his office with that same lump in my throat. My stomach was doing flip-flops.

Fortunately, my close friends Benita Hill Johnson and Tammy Engelstein were with me. It's bad enough to receive bad news. It's really bad when it comes from a doctor. I was deeply grateful for the presence of two of my dearest friends.

Dr. Woolf didn't beat around the bush. "Miss Cole," he said, "you have hepatitis C."

My heart sank. Hep C is a serious liver infection.

"How did I contract it?"

"It could have been a blood transfusion. A tattoo. Or a drug injection. Hepatitis C is not uncommon among intravenous drug users."

"I was an intravenous drug user," I said. "But it's been twenty-five-plus years."

"Back then," asked Dr. Woolf, "did you share needles with others?"

"All the time. I was on heroin."

"That might explain it."

"But, Doctor, I've been clean and sober ever since."

"The virus can remain dormant in your body for decades. Its manifestation is highly unpredictable. You never know when or if it's going to assault your liver."

"And all because of something I did a lifetime ago?"

"I'm afraid so."

I closed my eyes. I really didn't want to hear what I was hearing. I didn't want to know about it. Didn't want to accept it. Didn't want to see a scene that, for a few seconds, was playing out in my mind.

• • •

1975. I was twenty-five and had recorded my first album in Chicago. The initial single, "This Will Be (an Everlasting Love)," was starting to climb the charts. I had a small following from my club dates but was hardly a star. I was, in fact, a junkie. I had come to New York City to score dope. I was running up to Harlem to buy heroin. I wanted one thing and one thing only — the feeling I got when the sh-- shot through my veins. I was going to get it, no matter what. Billy Strayhorn said the A train is the quickest way to get to Harlem, so I took the A train. Jumped off at 125th Street and walked over to a run-down building.

I could walk the streets of Harlem undisturbed. I was comfortable in that neighborhood. I didn't have buddies up there, but people knew me as Nat's daughter. People welcomed me. Even the police knew who I was.

"Hey, Natalie, how you doin', baby?" an older man greeted me.

"Lookin' good, mama," said a young cat. "Lookin' real good."

Even as a junkie, I took pride in my appearance. I looked like I was ready to shop at Saks. I was obviously overdressed for an appointment with the dope man.

The dope man lived in a nasty brick building where he sold his wares to whoever had the bread. I had the bread and the nerve to walk down those dark hallways, filled with graffiti and stinking of urine, until I reached his apartment and loudly knocked.

"It's Natalie," I said.

"Good God almighty, you back already?"

And with that, the dope man opened the door, smiled, and invited me in.

A few minutes later, I floated out. On the radio from someone's porch in Harlem, I heard the strains of "This Will Be (an Everlasting Love)." All I could think of was an everlasting high.

"Natalie, I know this is difficult news for you to hear," said Dr. Woolf, taking me out of my flashback, "but treatment will be needed."

"What kind?"

"Interferon."

"My brother, Kelly, took interferon when he was sick with AIDS. It has devastating side effects, doesn't it?"

"The side effects are serious, but the treatment is necessary. Here's how it works. Interferon is a chemical that we all have in our bodies in very small amounts. It fights off viruses, but it's easily overwhelmed by certain viruses like hepatitis C. That's why you require additional interferon through weekly injections."

"Isn't that considered a form of chemotherapy?" I asked.

"Yes."

My sister Cooke, the naturalist, had been talking against chemotherapy for years.

"And if I don't start this chemotherapy?" I had to ask.

"You'll become very, very sick."

"And die?"

"At some point your liver will stop functioning."

"I'm in the middle of making a record. I simply can't stop now for treatments."

"The treatments don't need to start immediately. But soon. Very soon."

Excerpted from "Love Brought Me Back" by Natalie Cole. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster.