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She's Come a Long Way From Baby

Profile of 13-year-old AIDS activist Hydeia Broadbent

October 1997

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 split."

"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 teens do.

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 her."

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 retorts again.

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."

###

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