Today is National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. This is a time to educate and reflect on the AIDS pandemic and it’s impact on women and girls. Every 35 minutes, a woman tests positive for HIV in the United States. African-American women are the hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, comprising 72% of all new cases of HIV. And sadly, AIDS is the number one killer of African-American women between the ages of 25-34.
Since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic, there has been a steady rise in the newly diagnosed cases of HIV in women. Historically, in the United States women with HIV/AIDS have been underserved. In the early days of the pandemic, women were not admitted into hospital, AIDS wards, nor were studies designed to include them. In fact, the first natural history study looking at disease progression in women and HIV is only fifteen years old. And the first medicine study specifically examining issues related to women only began in 2008. The conference highlighted in this video was in 1996, fifteen years into the pandemic.
When I did this news report on women and AIDS fifteen years ago, I had been diagnosed with HIV for almost ten years. While African-American women were identifying with my two-month-old story in Essence Magazine across this country, AIDS was ravishing my body. Staring death in the face, I felt a sense of urgency about the work of HIV/AIDS. If I could prevent one woman from experiencing my pain, then my living was not in vain. Ironically, a little girl named Hydeia Broadbent was also fighting for her life and the lives of others. Like me, she wanted her young life to have purpose. Today, I celebrate the life and work of that incredible woman.
Hydeia Broadbent stole my heart from the very first day. I remember it clearly, I was sitting in my living room and this beautiful African-American girl became the highlight of a rather boring ABC’s 20/20. Everything stopped in my house as I watched this 7-year-old girl with wisdom beyond her years. Starting her activism at age 6, she is by far the youngest AIDS activist to date (Ryan White was 11 when he emerged on the scene). I was struck by both her ability to grasp the magnitude of her illness, as well as her willingness to challenge stigma and shame around this disease. While she was optimistic, she was not in denial. Hydeia, like many of us, had two choices: live until you die or stop living while you die. She chose to live!
Hydeia took life by the horn and never slowed down. Many of us watched with mixed emotions when she married her best friend. In retrospect, I wonder if some of the discomfort was because she was so young, or because her best friend was a little white boy. My critique of it all was informed by my own journey. I had married my ex-husband prematurely because of AIDS: That was her point too. I may not live to marry at an appropriate age, so I will do it now while I have a chance. Live! Live! Live! was the banner cry then. I was glued to the television as they told her story.
The Early Years
Hydeia was born to a drug-addicted mother and abandoned at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas. She was then placed in Child Haven, a county-run children's facility. At six weeks old, she was placed in the home of Patricia and Loren Broadbent. They had served as foster parents for numerous children, including other "drug babies" like Hydeia. When Hydeia came to the Broadbents she weighed less than six pounds and was dressed in doll's clothes because she was so small. The Broadbents took care of Hydeia until it was time to take her to an adoption fair with the hope of placing her with a permanent family. Hydiea’s race became a hindrance to her adoption and finally, the Broadbents adopted Hydeia themselves. From the beginning, Hydeia had problems eating and often experienced crying fits, but the Broadbents did not find her problems unusual for a child born to a drug-addicted mother. As a baby, Hydeia was chronically ill, more so than any other foster child the Broadbents had experienced. She caught the chicken pox several times, had numerous respiratory infections and seemed to catch any cold with which she came into contact. She even became very sick from regular childhood immunizations. It was not until she was three years old that the Broadbents finally understood the cause of her chronic illnesses.
On New Year's Day in 1988, the Broadbents heard a news story about a child who was believed to be the first Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) baby in Las Vegas. They did not think much about the story until they learned four months later that this child shared a biological mother with Hydeia. Upon hearing the news, all of the Broadbents were tested, but only Hydeia was diagnosed as having the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. At that time, very little was known about AIDS in general and pediatric HIV/AIDS was almost unheard of. The Broadbents spoke with their family doctor as well as the Centers for Disease Control and were told that there were no treatments for Hydeia. The only AIDS drug at that time, AZT, was not yet available for children. The prognosis for Hydeia was that she might live to the age of five. Eventually she was referred to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where she began an HIV drug study. Hydeia’s drug therapy plan consisted of recombinant, CD4 and ddI. She was so sick all the time that the side effects of the medication seemed normal. Hydeia, said, “I didn’t know anything different. Normal to me was being sick.”
Hydeia began speaking publicly about the disease while assisting her mother's activism, but eventually she overshadowed her own mother with her effective speaking style. Soon, Patricia Broadbent began letting Hydeia speak for herself. Her talents were recognized by a social worker at NIH who cast Hydeia in a pediatric AIDS educational video called "I Need a Friend." The video, Fearless, was seen by other AIDS activists who were moved by Hydeia's powerful message and her delivery. She soon began to participate in press conferences with Elizabeth Glaser, a co-founder of the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. "She really has an inner sense of the impact of her disease, and she's able to relay that message to others," Dr. Philip Pizzo told People magazine. By age 12 she was appearing on national programs including Oprah, 20/20, Good Morning America and “A Conversation with Magic Johnson.” Over the next 10 years Hydeia became a notable featured speaker and guest panelist at some of America’s most respected educational institutions: Duke University, Clark Atlanta University, UCLA, USC and Howard University, as well as the Essence Music Festival and Bishop TD Jakes Aids Rally. In 2006, Hydeia was the keynote speaker at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada.
Hydeia went to kindergarten like every typical girl her age. However, stigma and myths around HIV/AIDS took center stage. One day she sneezed and her teacher sprayed bleach on her desk and it hit Hydeia in the face. Hydeia explained to her teacher that the cartilage in her nose was basically gone and she often had sinus infections that caused a lot of mucus. When she sneezed, she said, “Boogies come out of my nose.” Later in the week, while her mother was doing the laundry Hydeia reacted to the smell of the bleach telling her mother that “bleach burns.” Patricia marched straight to school and asked the teacher to show her the finger that she used to spray the bleach. She grabbed her finger and told her, “If you ever spray bleach on my daughter again, I will tear this finger off!” After that incident, Hydeia was removed from school and began home schooling. She admits that home schooling was isolating affecting her socialization skills.
By the time she went to regular school again, for part of 7th and 8th grades, she was behind most kids her age academically. Her senior year, she was determined to be a normal teenage girl. She wanted to go to her prom. High School was difficult for her and admits that she was behind academically and socially. Hydeia had a difficult time adjusting. She didn't make friends easily and girls were catty with her. Ironically they saw her as a child star and treated her as if she believed that she was better than them. She started dating in her teen years and admits that she has had a rocky time of it. Her first boyfriend was great. But his parents were not thrilled about their son dating Hydeia. She says, “I think more than anything, they were just concerned about their son. Her dating and sex life took center stage. Should she or shouldn't she date. After her first boyfriend, she met the “Bad Boy.” The relationship was rocky almost from day one. Hydeia believe that the rumor mill and stigma made “him ashamed of me.” As with most “Bad Boy” relationships, it took time to make the final break. In between the break ups, there was much drama, including Hydeia breaking his car window. Go ahead, Laugh Out Loud. We have all been there or close to it. She is currently in a committed relationship with a guy she absolutely cares about. While she admits that she is not a virgin, she has taken a vow of abstinence until she gets married. “I tell people all the time, “Being HIV positive, don’t mean that his penis will fall off or that your vagina is sown up. Sex with a condom is safe.”
All Grown Up
At 25, Hydeia spends her time trying to spread the message about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention by promoting safe sex and knowing your HIV/AIDS status. She says, “People think because I was born with it my story does not apply to them. Well this same disease I am living with is the same disease you can get if you don’t practice safe sex or know your sex partner’s status, so use what I have been through as a warning of what you don’t want to go through!” She admits that her work is difficult. AIDS is no longer a sexy topic and speaking is her primary source of income. She and Patricia Broadbent have had a rocky mother daughter relationship. Hydeia has been taking care of herself since she was 17 years old. Like with most child stars, by the time she was on her own most of her money was gone. She says, ”I believe they didn't save my money from speaking because they didn't think I was going to live.” She attended college for two years and is planning on returning. While she will always be an AIDS activist, she is looking beyond the speaking circuit. She loves young people and is trying to find her niche. While her health is stable, like most people with advanced AIDS, she still struggles. This means a heavy pill load and chronic medical issues. She understands that she has a special gift, that God is using her to reach young people. She wants them to “take what I am going through as a warning of what not to go through.”
Since 1996, Hydeia has been featured in some of today’s most prominent publications and television programs that include: Essence, Ebony, New York Times, POZ, Seventeen, Heart & Soul, Nickelodeon, MTV and BET. Hydeia has also been a part of some of America’s top talk radio programs including the Russ Parr Morning Show, Tom Joyner Morning Show and also was a part of one of the first satellite radio programs dealing with HIV/AIDS. Hydeia received the distinguished Essence Award and the American Red Cross Spirit Award. Ebony named Hydeia as one of the Most Influential African Americans 2008.
In honor of Hydeia Broadbent, I am proud to announce the Hydeia AIDS Awarness Bracelet.