Speaking For The HIV-Positive, And Herself

Hydeia Broadbent was diagnosed as HIV-positive at age three. By the time she was six, she was already sharing her story publicly to lessen the stigma around the disease. On the final day of the 19th International AIDS Conference, host Michel Martin speaks with Broadbent, who is now in her 20s, about living with HIV. She's involved in a new awareness program from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called "Let's Stop HIV Together."

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the excitement is building over the Olympic Games. We'll talk with Robin Prendes of the U.S. Rowing Team about his remarkable journey from new immigrant to Olympian and what it takes to be great at his sport. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, we have our final guest in the series of conversations we've been having all week during the 19th International AIDS Conference, which was held in the U.S. for the first time in more than 20 years in Washington, D.C. We've spoken with political leaders, community activists and medical experts about their ongoing efforts to fight the disease and help people live better lives despite it.

For our final conversation this week, we wanted to bring you the story of a young woman who's been on the frontlines of fighting to bring awareness around HIV and AIDS for nearly her entire life.

Hydeia Broadbent was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 3. The disease was passed down from her mother, an IV drug user, who left her at the hospital. Hydeia's adoptive parents did not want her to live a life of shame, so they encouraged her to share her story with the public and, by the age of 6, she began to make national appearances to raise awareness around HIV, even appearing before a national political convention.

Now, she's part of the Let's Stop HIV Together campaign launched by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It aims to curb the complacency around HIV in the US, and Hydeia Broadbent is here with us now.

Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for coming.

HYDEIA BROADBENT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: For all the people who remember you as a super cute little girl, it is a bit of a shock to see you as a beautiful young woman, which you are. How are you doing?

BROADBENT: I'm doing well. I'm still in the good fight, trying to educate about HIV/AIDS using my life as an example, but I'm doing very well. Thank you.

MARTIN: How about your health? I mean, you look fabulous.

BROADBENT: My health is in and out. I think I am battling a chronic sinus infection, so when I go back home, I'm going to see my doctors. My health is OK. It's just the requirements when you're trying to receive programs that help you cover your medication and your doctors' bills - they're kind of hard. Like, your income - they want you to be almost at poverty level, so if you make a little bit over, then you get kicked off and one month's worth of medication can be about $800 or $1,500 and you have to take about three.

So, whenever people say, oh, if I contract HIV, I could just pop a pill like you and Magic Johnson and be OK and I'm like, the medications are better. It's not a death sentence, but they are very expensive and I don't think people understand that.

MARTIN: Well, I'm glad you brought that up because one of the things I was going to ask you about was, you know, what's changed over the years that you've been in advocacy, so I do want to talk about that. But just to remind people a little bit of who you are, I mentioned that you've been advocating around HIV awareness, I should say, for your entire life and I just want to play a clip of one of your early TV appearances.

I think many people will remember this. This was 1992 and you were featured in a Nickelodeon special about AIDS and it did star - you mentioned Magic Johnson. He was the star. Well, you were the star, but he was one of the stars, and he had recently announced that he was HIV positive. And it was one of those kind of moments a lot of people will remember as kind of pivotal in our conversations around - here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TV SHOW)

EARVIN MAGIC JOHNSON, JR.: You wanted to say something?

BROADBENT: Yeah. I want people to know that we're just another people.

JR.: Uh-huh. Aw, you don't have to cry. You don't have to cry.

MARTIN: Do you remember that? Do you remember that a little bit?

BROADBENT: Vaguely, in and out.

MARTIN: You were a little girl. You were so little. I wanted to ask about - one of the things, I think, that was so touching for people is to think about what that must be like to be a little girl facing, you know, the rest of your life, whatever that was going to be and thinking about kind of the stigma and fear that a lot of people had around HIV at the time.

Does that still exist? Do you have any fear around talking about those issues, even now?

BROADBENT: The stigma is still around for other people. We have people who are losing their jobs. They're fired. We have a young boy in Hershey, Pennsylvania who was denied access to his school because he was HIV-positive. So I feel like the stigma is almost back to what it was in the late '80s, early '90s because we kind of fell off on the prevention and we forgot to educate this new generation on the realities of HIV/AIDS and the sensitivity.

So we have people who HIV/AIDS is new for them and so they're reacting in a way because they're not educated, so I feel like the stigma is almost at an all-time high. For me, I don't really face it, maybe because I live in a more - in a big city and not so much a small town or I just don't pay attention to it.

MARTIN: You're also 28 years old now, which is, you know, hard to believe for people who have you kind of freeze-framed as that little girl. All grown up. I'm sure your parents are shocked, too. But when you were first diagnosed with HIV, it really was a death sentence. It was something you died from and, as you mentioned, it's something you live with.

Do you remember a moment when you realized that you were going to live and grow up? I mean, do you ever remember thinking of having to change your thoughts about what the rest of your life was going to be?

BROADBENT: I remember asking my mother questions about - if I pass away, how would she feel?

MARTIN: Oh.

BROADBENT: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: I'm sorry.

BROADBENT: But that was the reality. My friends - they were all passing away, so I became very used to death. It was, OK. Well, Dougie died. OK. It was just something that you became immune to and I'm sure that my family thought there were going to be times that I was going to pass away. I don't know.

I was never a sad child, you know, because this is my life. This is what I was used to. So you kind of just did it, but now, to know - being an adult, you - I've lived life. I've experienced it. I've loved. So it becomes emotional to know that, with all the medications, with all the advancements, the reality is I still have AIDS and the reality is you can die. So I think that's why I become emotional and that's why it frustrates me that people are not being careful and they're not talking to their kids because you can still die from AIDS, and I just wish people would understand that and the reality that they just need to be careful and they need to be safe.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. I didn't mean to...

BROADBENT: No, it's fine. I...

MARTIN: ...bring up painful things.

BROADBENT: No. I am an emotional person. I cry every time I speak about it because in the moments that I'm fighting for health insurance or speaking on behalf of somebody who's facing stigma, you don't think about it. But, when I sit down and I talk about it, whether it's I'm being interviewed or giving a speech, that's when the reality hits. Oh, wait. You do have AIDS. Oh, wait. This is the reality of your life.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent. She's working with the Centers for Disease Control on their Let's Stop HIV Together campaign. You probably remember her as a very young girl talking about HIV and AIDS, which she contracted from her IV-using mother at the time. Her adoptive parents have always encouraged her to be open about HIV and AIDS.

Talk a little bit more, if you would, about the complacency around this issue. I remember one interview you gave where you talked about the fact that there was a study, actually, by - you know, a reputable research organization that said that the number of people who say they've read quite a lot about AIDS has actually declined significantly over the years.

But are there other ways that you see complacency around AIDS?

BROADBENT: I think that, especially in America, if you don't have AIDS, if you're not working in the field, you're kind of like, OK, well, I don't have to pay attention. One of the facts is, because the medications are better, people are living longer. We don't have people - I'm sorry - dropping like flies, as they once were.

The fear is not there. We don't have people walking around looking like death, so we are complacent. We think that HIV is under control. That's why I did the campaign with my best friend to use my face and say, you know what? We do have people - this is something that you still need to pay attention to. AIDS has not gone away.

MARTIN: What would you want people to take away from this and be thinking today, every day? Today, tomorrow, the next day?

BROADBENT: Well, one of the things that I personally want, along with this Let's Stop HIV Together campaign is it's going to take all of us to realize that we can stop HIV, but it's going to take us to understand that it affects us all in some way or another, whether you're affected. You may have known someone or lost them, whether you're living with HIV, or whether you're a taxpayer, it affects us all. So, if you really want to make a change, it's really time that we start working together.

MARTIN: Is this a full-time job?

BROADBENT: Well, yes. I've made it a full time job. I hate to say that because being an HIV activist, it really should not be your profession, but it is. I started at 6 years old. It wasn't something that I sought after. It wasn't something - it just kind of happened. And, being that I'm 28 now, I feel that it would be irresponsible for me to back out after I've been in it so long.

Some of the content - it's not really directed for the young people, so I feel like we need some education or some program that will get their attention, keep their attention, so I'm going to start producing and I'm actually writing my book now, so I have a lot going on.

MARTIN: All right. Well, thanks for taking the time to come and see us.

BROADBENT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Hydeia Broadbent is an HIV awareness advocate. She's currently working with the Centers for Disease Control on their Let's Stop HIV Together campaign, which is aimed at young people like her, and she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Hydeia, thank you so much for coming.

BROADBENT: Thank you for having me.

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