She's Come a Long Way From
Profile of 13-year-old AIDS activist Hydeia
By STEVE FRIESS
All four feet and 54 pounds of 13-year-old Hydeia Broadbent
stands impatiently on an immense stage at Beverly Hills High
School waiting for quiet.
"Hey!" she shrieks. Her lilt rasp of a voice becomes
a terse hand grenade, launched directly at two teenage boys
in the back who chatted noisily through earlier presentations.
"I came all the way here to talk to you, and I expect you
to listen to what I have to say."
Every neck in the crowd cranes toward the boys, whose startled
eyes and blushing faces expose their embarrassment. The pair
shut up abruptly, and the impressed audience erupts into the
riotous applause that teens usually reserve for a Hootie concert.
The crowd seems to understand now why, despite her size, Hydeia's
friends refer to her as Ms. B -- for "big and bossy."
From there on, Hydeia rivets her students with blunt talk about
HIV and AIDS. She tells about how she contracted the virus in
the womb from her birth mother, an IV-drug user. About the times
the disease nearly killed her. About how people can -- and can't
-- become infected. And about her many young friends who are
gone now, dancing together in heaven and relieved of their short,
intensely painful lives.
Then comes the grand finale. Hydeia pulls a wad of change from
her pocket and asks the two offending boys to come to the stage.
Soon they stand besides her as she shakes the coins in her tiny
hands, then thrusts her closed fists forward. She beckons one
boy, then the other, to choose a hand and offers this warning:
"If you pick a hand with coins in it, you'll have AIDS."
One boy picks the right, the other picks the left, but when
Hydeia opens her grips, coins drop from both fists. The audience
is baffled. "There," the speaker chimes in knowingly.
"You both have AIDS. Now, if you didn't want to have AIDS,
you wouldn't have picked either hand. You didn't have to pick
a hand. You had a choice. You could've chosen not to do it,
but you did it anyway because I asked you to."
Hydeia's mother sits in the audience, astonished. Once again
her daughter has amazed Pat Broadbent, drumming up one of her
many interactive gimmicks to illustrate her message for the
masses. "Sometimes I just sit there and say, 'Where does
she get this stuff from?'" Broadbent says. "But it
just comes from her, from her little head. No matter how many
times I watch her, I still sometimes can't believe some of the
things she comes up with."
Still, it's a little late for Hydeia's parents to marvel much
anymore. This is a child who appeared with Magic Johnson in
one of his TV specials on AIDS. Who leaves her Las Vegas home
twice a month to give lectures at churches, public schools and
colleges across the nation. Whose bedroom walls are cluttered
with personally autographed photos of Janet Jackson, Reba McEntire
and Wynonna Judd, each proclaiming their awe of her.
And, in perhaps her most notable and visible moment, Hydeia
brought tears and silence to the floor of the 1996 Republican
National Convention by striding up to the podium on prime-time
TV alongside AIDS activist Mary Fisher to read a 106-word poem
she wrote on the flight to San Diego.
"I am the future, and I have AIDS," announced Hydeia,
dressed in a black overall skirt and white T-shirt. She continued
fearlessly, one strand of her flowing, tight-knotted braids
hanging over her face near her clip-on nose ring: "I am
Hydeia L. Broadbent. I can do anything I put my mind to. I am
the next doctor. I am the next lawyer. I am the next Maya Angelou.
I might even be the first woman president. I am the future,
and I have AIDS. I am not afraid of anything or anyone. I am
not afraid of the white m an, I am not afraid of the black man.
I am only afraid of my mom when I get a bad report card. You
can't crush my dream. I am the future, and I have AIDS."
* * *
There never was a time when Hydeia Broadbent wasn't the center
of attention, though her parents' looks early on were more often
full of fear and horror rather than pride and excitement.
All Pat and Loren Broadbent knew when they brought the 6-week-old
infant into their Las Vegas home in the summer of 1984 was that
her mother abused drugs. The baby couldn't sleep and constantly
bawled, rarely ate and almost always wheezed from a stuffed
nose. Her pediatrician labeled her as having a "failure
to thrive." "She always had a problem," recalled
Pat Broadbent, a social worker. "She was never gaining
weight, she always had upper-respiratory infections. If I brought
her to your house and your kid had a cold, two or three days
later she'd be sicker than your kid ever was."
Three years later, the Broadbents learned why. Hydeia's biological
mother, still an addict, gave birth again, but this time the
hospital tested the newborn for HIV. The test returned positive,
leading local doctors and media to declare the baby to be the
first ever born with HIV in Las Vegas. Weeks later, though,
the newborn's caseworker contacted the Broadbents to say the
boy was Hydeia's half-brother and to urge tests for Hydeia and
the Broadbents. Only Hydeia tested positive; doctors predicted
she'd die by age 5.
Devastated and terrified, Hydeia's parents knew little about
AIDS aside its impact on gay men and IV drug users. They quickly
discovered, though, that those afraid of AIDS didn't care who
had it or how the infection occurred. "The lab technicians
were wearing full gowns, two pairs of gloves, goggles and masks,
covered from head to toe," Loren Broadbent recalled. "They
looked like spacemen. Hydeia started crying immediately. She
was so little and extremely skinny. I also started crying, and
I had to hold her arm down so it wouldn't jerk. They couldn't
find the vein, so they kept poking her."
Thus began a tiny girl's countless visits to hospitals. Las
Vegas, then still a mid-sized tourist destination, had no immunologists,
so once a month Hydeia headed to Los Angeles for gammagobulin
injections. (Las Vegas is now the fastest growing city in the
U.S. with more than 1.2 million residents.) The gamma was the
only widely used treatment for children with AIDS, but two years
later Hydeia was accepted into a protocol program for ddi at
the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. By age 9,
Hydeia would suffer three bouts with PCP and seven rounds of
the chicken pox, among other recurring troubles. She's changed
to different protocols over the years and continues to fly to
the NIH monthly for check-ups and medication refills. Hydeia,
who has not been seriously ill in more than three years, takes
a daily drug regimen that includes ddi, 3TC, Crixivan and CD-Hranconazole.
Of all her close calls, none traumatized her parents more than
the night at the NIH when doctors called a "code blue"
on the 6-year-old after her fever soared past 107 and her blood
pressure slowed to a dribble. "I wasn't really all that
concerned until I saw the doctor dancing and shoving tubes in
her all over and constantly racing to the telephone to call
other people," Pat Broadbent said. "Then they turned
on like every microphone in the whole hospital and repeated
'Code blue' over and over. I'm hearing it, but it's not registering
that they meant our room." By the next evening, when her
father flew to Bethesda to be with her, Hydeia was jumping exuberantly
on her bed.
Hydeia's parents may have been shell-shocked, but the child's
gleeful spirit was barely dampened by such experiences. "Daddy,"
she once told Loren, "I have a purpose, and my purpose
is to let people know what AIDS does to people. When my mission
is over, it'll be my time to go."
* * *
A good attitude is one thing. The star quality of Shirley Temple
is quite another.
Hydeia's show-biz potential erupted spontaneously during one
of her early NIH visits when she grabbed her plastic Fisher
Price microphone and began impersonating the reporter sidekick
of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon characters. "Hi,
my name is April O'Neal and I'm from Channel 6 news," Hydeia
announced to Lori Wiener, coordinator of the Pediatric HIV Psychosocial
Support program. "I would like to know how you would feel
if you had the AIDS virus?"
Hydeia, like any good journalist, had caught Wiener off-guard.
"Well, I'm not sure," the social worker answered.
"I think it would be pretty hard, but I would probably
learn a lot about myself. How would you feel if you had the
HIV virus, Miss O'Neal?"
"I don't think it would be so bad," the girl noted.
"I would probably get a lot of stuff. But did you know
you could die from the HIV virus?" Hydeia didn't let Wiener
answer that one, instead turning to her mother. "How would
you feel if you had a daughter with the HIV virus?"
At that point, Wiener grabbed a camcorder and began filming
Hydeia's cinematic debut. A few months later, with Pat Broadbent's
permission and some modest funding, Wiener created a 15-minute
video called "I Need a Friend" in which Hydeia and
two other children discussed the disease. Hydeia sang a self-made
ditty about AIDS and friendship, offering an endearing performance
distributed to dozens AIDS organizations across the nation and
to shown to countless other children with HIV and adults working
with pediatric AIDS.
That wasn't Hydeia's only breakthrough, though. Around the
same time, the NIH opened its Children's Inn, a free residence
hotel where any of the clinic's pediatric patients and their
families can stay while undergoing treatments at the NIH. A
local TV cameraman, working on a piece about the inn, observed
Hydeia chatting with another girl in the playroom, oblivious
to the electronic eavesdropping.
"What's wrong with you?" asked the other child, who
did not have HIV.
"I have AIDS," said Hydeia with a matter-of-fact
plainness that would become her signature.
"What's that?" her new friend inquired.
"It's in my blood. It's a disease. When I was in my mother's
stomach, I got it."
"Can I get it?"
"No, only if you play with my blood."
These moments piqued media interest in the eloquent, self-possessed
and brightly attractive little girl with an adorable exuberence
resembling Rudy Huxtable from "The Cosby Show." AIDS
activist Elizabeth Glaser urged basketball star Magic Johnson
to include Hydeia on his "A Conversation With Magic"
TV special. ABC's 20/20 ran a lengthy segment. Maury Povich
called, followed by Oprah, Jerry Springer and CBS This Morning.
Schools and church groups across the U.S. started asking for
her, and at age 10 she went on a two-week tour of East Coast
to promote Camp Heartland, a summer retreat for children with
HIV/AIDS and their siblings.
The 20/20 piece, filmed at the height of Hydeia's era of illnesses,
so moved a Montgomery, Ala., woman that she formed the Hydeia
L. Broadbent Foundation to raise money for Hydeia to travel.
The non-profit foundation moved to Los Angeles after Hydeia
appeared on the Black Achievers Award show in 1994 and show
producer Conrad Bullard "fell in love with her over a banana
"I get two calls a day about Hydeia," said Bullard,
who took over running the foundation with his wife. "They
want her at their church. They want her at their college campus.
The way she comes across with her overall appeal, her body language,
her singing and dancing is pure gold. She's the most popular
little AIDS activist in the country."
The singing and dancing isn't as obvious in the dozens of appearances
Hydeia's family has on videotape, but one appearance on the
Camp Heartland tour illustrated the physical animation that
excites Bullard and others.
"How many people want to be cool?" asked Hydeia of
a gymnasium full of high school teens. She looked serious, almost
sad, up until this, dressed in an oversized black sweatshirt
and black knit cap and sporting a black backpack that contained
the medicines supplied by IV to her bloodstream at the time.
"How many people think they're cool? What do you do to
be cool?" She paused to hear the audience chuckle, then
answered her own question by strutting across the stage and
swaggering her tiny shoulders as she delivered her next line
like a rap star. "You talk cool, you walk cool, you dress
cool, you act cool, right?" When the amused crowd simmered,
Hydeia moved in for the kill. "Being cool can turn out
really deadly. I know lots of people who got infected wanting
to be cool, and they're not here today."
Such appearances impressed the Washington D.C.-based AIDS Action,
a national AIDS lobbying organization who honored Hydeia this
spring with its inaugural Pedro Zamora Memorial Award for Youth
Advocacy. Hydeia received the award, named for the late youth
activist and MTV "Real World" star, at a banquet where
the organization also honored Vice President Al Gore.
Executive Director Daniel Zingale said Hydeia's name is often
mentioned by young people who visit the organization's World
Wide Web site. "Hydeia exemplifies what the award is about
in terms of a young person courageously meeting the challenges
of HIV and AIDS," he said. "Her speech to the Republicans
brought her to the attention of a lot of people in Washington,
D.C., and represented the courage she has in speaking out in
front of a range of audiences under the scrutiny of the media."
The decision to speak in San Diego remains controversial to
some in an AIDS community dominated by liberal Democrats still
angry about a lack of action against the disease by Republicans
Ronald Reagan and George Bush. "People keep asking us,
'Are you Republicans?'" said Pat Broadbent, her calm demeanor
replaced by defensively pursed lips. "We were at Arizona
State University. Are we students? We were at a Southern Baptist
church. Are we Southern Baptist? The Republicans needed to know
about AIDS just like every other group needs to know. Somebody's
going to take office, a Democrat or a Republican. Do I want
them to have AIDS on their agenda? Absolutely."
* * *
Hydeia doesn't pay much attention to the hullaboo that surrounds
her, remaining decidedly level-headed about the places she's
been and the celebrities she's met. Around the Broadbents' modest
ranch house far from the famous Las Vegas glitz, she does her
chores and fights with her mother about homework just as other
She is, surprisingly, a bit reserved in private.
"It's a strange dicotomy," Conrad Bullard says. "Hydeia
has this natural thing, but as soon as she leaves the stage,
she goes into this shell. In her own way, unless she really
knows you, she actually can be kind of shy."
On a hot May afternoon in Las Vegas, that's Hydeia. Far from
the poised performer offering a $1,000 vocabulary and the occasional
bit of pizzazz, Hydeia quietly discusses her life in more simplistic
terms than she might use on-stage. She sits Indian-style in
her bedroom, a typically cluttered teenage abode with clothes
and games strewn about her bunkbed and baseball caps pinned
to the walls, answering most questions with curt, whispery responses.
Does she ever get stage fright? "Not really." Of
all the cities she's traveled to, which did she like most? "I
don't really have any favorites." How does she feel about
recent breakthroughs in AIDS treatments? "They'll get a
vaccine. All those doctors are doing a lot."
It is here, ironically, where Hydeia sits before her dressing
table mirror to invent and rehearse her act. But clearly, the
cameras and the crowds turn on Hydeia's glam effect. An hour
before the interview, in fact, an animated Hydeia toyed with
a new camcorder she received for her birthday, taping herself
speaking as if she were making a demo tape.
Now she's demure, just as Bullard noted, until her baby sister,
Trish, wakes from her nap and wanders bleary-eyed into Hydeia's
room. Trish, a 5-year-old who also has AIDS, squats spontaneously
into my lap, prompting me to interview the constantly giggling
little girl with the walnut-sized brown eyes. As the focus shifts
to Trish, Hydeia becomes more involved.
"Tell him what AIDS is," Hydeia prods her coy sister.
Trish, who's been healthy for years thanks to her regimen
of AZT, ddi and Ritonavir, is unaware of HIV's gruesome potential.
Instead, getting shots means new toys and "AIDS means I
can't drink the water they give us on the airplane because my
mom says it might make me sick."
Five years ago, Hydeia noticed Trish floundering in the pediatric
ward of a Las Vegas hospital. Neither Loren nor Pat Broadbent
wanted to adopt another sickly infant with HIV, but, "Hydeia
is very persuasive," her father said. "She kept seeing
Trish in there and she'd tell us, 'Please bring her home. She'll
die if we don't take her.' "
Hydeia's charm even works on her parents, and now Trish is
the sixth Broadbent child of a bunch that ranges in age from
32 to 5 years old. (Pat Broadbent refuses to say which of her
children are biologically hers and which are not.) Recalling
the day he brought Trish home, Loren Broadbent says, "To
get another child that has an illness like this, I asked God
if we were biting off more than we could chew."
Trish has taken the stage with her sister once or twice to
introduce herself as a child with AIDS, but she's not the natural
performer Hydeia is. Rather, Trish is contented to watch to
Hydeia's speeches. "She speaks so pretty," Trish says.
"I like to listen. It's nice."
* * *
While Hydeia is widely admired for work, some do question the
Broadbents' lifestyle. Diana Dowling, the adoptive mother of
Hydeia's 9-year-old half-brother, asked why a healthy Hydeia
remains on homebound schooling. Pat Broadbent says Hydeia needs
to sleep on her own schedule, a 9 p.m.-to-10 a.m. routine, in
order to remain strong.
"Personally, I wish she'd get back to being more of a
normal little girl going to school every day," said Dowling,
a Las Vegas elementary school principal and founder of Nevada's
only pediatric AIDS day care center. "What we need to do
is raise our children to survive this disease and become productive
adults. I don't see any reason why a child with AIDS should
not be in school. I don't see Hydeia as an ill child."
Dowling, an on-again, off-again friend of Pat Broadbent's,
touched on an issue others are more fearful of discussing publicly
because of Hydeia's popularity. One AIDS activist who has dealt
with the Broadbents says that while Hydeia is an excellent role
model and spokesperson for young people with AIDS, she may also
be under too much pressure. "You have to think a child
like that must be being pushed to some degree," said the
activist, who asked not to be named. "It may not be the
case, but it's hard to believe someone's not overly encouraging
Yet Bullard insisted it is Hydeia's parents who put the brakes
on some of his grander plans: "We want her to do commercials,
host a TV special, maybe get in some movies. I say to Pat, 'Let
us do this and you can buy a new van, get a larger home.' But
Pat says she wants Hydeia to stay with AIDS activism for now."
Hydeia's father said they're not opposed to the teen branching
out, but only when she's ready. "Hydeia would like to be
a singer and be in the movies. She's been around a lot of movie
people and singers over the years. If it's something she wants
to do and feels she can do it well, we'll fully support that."
For now, though, Hydeia is busy enough giving her generation
a straight-up primer on HIV and AIDS. Years are passing since
her dramatic physical travails and new drug therapies promise
to turn HIV into a chronic condition, so Hydeia said she is
able to count on a long future ahead.
With her clever comic timing, surely she could become the next
Whoopi Goldberg. "Nope," she says defiantly.
With her gift for gab and her genuine interest in other people,
she could be another Oprah Winfrey. "Not me," Hydeia
Well, then, what will she become?
"The next Hydeia L. Broadbent," she states quietly
with confidence and not a trace of irony. "That's all I
want to be."