Spotlight on Hyphen Heroine Fiona Ma, Hepatitis B Woman Warrior

Among her many roles and achievements, Fiona Ma is a pioneering politician who was elected to the California 12th District Assembly, as well as a business entrepreneur who started her own accounting practice to combat the career glass ceiling that exists

  ·  HYPHEN: Asian American Unabridged   ·  Link to Article
Among her many roles and achievements, Fiona Ma is a pioneering politician who was elected to the California 12th District Assembly, as well as a business entrepreneur who started her own accounting practice to combat the career glass ceiling that exists for many women. But perhaps most importantly, she is also leading the fight against one of the most widespread problems to plague the Asian American community: the Hepatitis B virus (HBV). In the U.S. today, roughly 1.4 million Americans are infected with HBV. Among those infected, Asian Pacific Islanders comprise a shocking 50%, even though APIs only make up 5% of the American population.

HBV is passed through bodily fluids. Mother to child transmission, also called vertical transmission, is the most common way that many Asians pass Hep B from generation to generation. Without proper treatment, HBV leads to liver cancer which would require a liver transplant for the patient to survive. However, treatment is not often sought because those infected are unaware that they are carriers. HBV can lie dormant for 20-30 years showing no symptoms.

I first met Fiona at the annual Be a Hep B Warrior organized by AsianWeek Foundation where she was the keynote speaker. Her staunch demeanor combined with her low-key humor kept the large audience of about 500 fully attentive. The impression I arrived at was that nothing -- nothing -- gets in Ma’s way.

Before launching into an impassioned appeal in her speech for greater awareness and regular testing, Ma talked about her own history with the virus. At age 22, she went to donate blood and was rejected when HBV was found in her bloodstream. After receiving the rejection notice, she asked her mother about it and was told that she was only a “silent carrier,” as was later confirmed by her Asian American doctor. It was after speaking to Ted Fang and Dr. Sam So at an AsianWeek Foundation press conference that Fiona finally got tested. Dr. Sam So had told her that she had chronic Hep B and that 1/4 of people like her would develop liver cancer or require a liver transplant. Since that April 2007 press conference, she immediately went to her doctor and insisted on a blood test and liver ultra sound, to which her doctor reluctantly complied. Fiona also encouraged her entire family to get tested and screened.

In 2010, Ma’s mother requested a biopsy on her liver from her doctors. It took months to get a better X-ray of her liver, a  second and third opinion, and fighting with her insurance carrier before she was finally operated by Dr Nancy Asher, one of the top surgeons and liver experts at UCSF. Ma’s mother had to have part of her left liver lobe removed as a result of her liver inflammation caused by HBV. Thankfully, both Ma and her mother have since been healthy and doing well.

As a leader in the fight against HBV, Ma is taking huge risks. Because Hepatitis B, like AIDS, can be transmitted via sexual contact and fluids, a strong stigma against the virus persists. In the Chinese community, especially, instances of people infected with HBV being denied jobs, housing and education have repeatedly occurred. One of the first to urge wide discussion about HBV, Ma’s openness about her family’s history with the disease and her early lone-ranger rallying for awareness has also been viewed as a potential liability to her political career. Many believe that Ma, in associating herself with the virus, risks portraying herself as a physically weak person, unable to take on the hardships of a public life in politics.

                                       Fiona Ma at a Hep B rally

But the challenges resulting from such widespread ignorance only strengthens Ma’s efforts. “I’ve had people approach me in tears thanking me because they’ve been thinking all their life that they’ve been a pariah,” says Ma. The pitch of her voice heightens as she continues, “And Hep B is fully treatable, it’s preventable […] unless people talk about it, they feel like they’re the only one experiencing it and there’s no help for them, but there is. So I just feel like my part in being in public office is to be that voice and find that strength for other people to get tested, know their status, and get vaccinated (if you don't have Hep B) or get medication (if you need it) or monitor their condition each year with their doctor (as with people like me).”

After the AsianWeek Hep B gala, Ma and I met in person to discuss her cause in more depth. Usually my interviews last no longer than 30 minutes in coffee shops, but to my surprise, she suggested a restaurant that served Japanese food – her favorite. Our talk lasted almost two hours, yet I hardly noticed the passing time.

It is easy to see why Ma has many loyal supporters -- from the get-go she speaks with you as if you were a long-time friend. In contrast to my first impression at the gala where she very much appeared the elegant, strong leader, one-on-one she is down to earth, the kind of girlfriend you can picture yourself eating ice cream with at slumber parties. She speaks quickly, her voice trying to keep up with her rapid-fire thoughts. She has a habit of tapping you on the upper arm to stress a point or express indignation at ignorance. But what surprised me most was her equal interest in me as a person, not just an interviewer. “So what is your passion?” she asks me at one point. I was delighted as can be.

In addition to her fight against HBV, Ma sits on 12 non-profit boards, which include New Leader’s Council that mentors the next generation of leaders, and Family Connections that strives to improve education for low-income, primarily Latino families. The more I chat with Ma, the more I realize the profound, swelling compassion that lies beneath her tough, go-getter exterior.

A cursory glance at Ma’s CV will leave no doubt that she is one badass warrior. Armed with an accounting bachelor’s from Rochester Institute of Technology, a master’s in taxation from Golden Gate University, an MBA from Pepperdine University and a CPA license to practice, she worked early in  her career at Ernst and Young, a top-notch accounting firm before starting her own firm.

It was through networking for her new firm that Fiona got involved with politics. She was approached to become the President of the Asian Business Association. Ma seized the opportunity and ran with it -- reaching all the way to higher achievements, which include participation in a 1995 White House Conference on Small Businesses under Bill Clinton, appointment to the San Francisco Assessment Appeals where she handled property tax appeal cases, membership in San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, and election to the California State 12th Assembly District where she served for the maximum of three terms until 2012.

To help champion HBV awareness, Ma urges community members to educate themselves through various Hep B Free Chapter websites in California. Supporters can also keep current with HBV developments through Hep B Free’s charter website and through the Asian Liver Center’s website.

In the meantime, Ma will stop at nothing to end HBV: “I will talk about Hep B whenever I can to whoever will listen,” she declares. “I will appear in any advertising campaign, do any interviews, lobby any local, state and federal agency to allocate more money for research and awareness, raise money for different Hep B Free causes, and actively look for partners who will help us eradicate this disease.”