Hydeia Broadbent has known AIDS all 15 years of her life. She's felt it ravage her body through countless infections and sleepless nights flushed with fever. Even as medication has stabilized her condition, she knows she hasn't felt the last of it yet.
But as she stands quietly in the wilting afternoon heat, her orange plaid bathing suit electric against her ebony skin, she wears an expression that assures, somehow, everything will be all right.
Today is Hydeia's birthday, and at least 40 friends and family have come to her mother's north Las Vegas home to swim, dance, eat Uncle Walt's barbecued chicken and sing happy birthday.
As she watches them lovingly encircle her, she arches her back slightly and lets a smile sweep slowly across her face.
"I'm 15 years old," she sings when they are done, directing a knife toward the vanilla cake with blue icing balloons.
"I'm 15 years old, finally."
Which is reason enough to celebrate.
"When she was 3 1/2," says Patricia Broadbent, Hydeia's mother, "doctors said she wouldn't live past 5. I never thought I'd ever see this day."
Nor, she says, did she expect that Hydeia, who is just 4 feet, 6 inches and 74 pounds, would become a leading figure in the national struggle for AIDS awareness.
In her delicate but steady voice, Hydeia has spoken in school classrooms from Birmingham, Ala., to Los Angeles, in seminars and on television shows, reaching both children and adults in ways medical experts or celebrity spokespersons could never do.
"If there's one thing I can do with my life," Hydeia has said, "it's to help people see how AIDS is tearing apart the black community, tearing apart lives like mine."
Hydeia, whose biological mother was an intravenous drug addict who abandoned her and died before they could ever meet, now describes AIDS as a "choice" disease.
People make choices, she says, about sex and drugs, that affect themselves and other people.
But this afternoon, as hip-hop music such as TLC's "No Scrubs" pulses through the slow, dry air, Hydeia dances in a circle with her sisters and acquits herself, only, as the birthday girl.
"There aren't any celebrities here today," says Patricia, who has five other children and gave up a career in social services when she discovered that Hydeia--at 3 1/2 years old--was HIV-positive. "No one gets any special treatment in this house."
But the autographed pictures scattered throughout the family's modest one-story home showing Hydeia arm in arm with Janet Jackson and, in another, with Lakers star Kobe Bryant suggest otherwise.
So does a phone call during the party from pop singer Lauryn Hill, wishing the teenager a happy birthday and telling her she is looking forward to seeing her next week in New Orleans, when Hydeia is to speak during a music festival and empowerment seminar.
It's just one of several events Hydeia will attend this summer now that classes are out and, for the time being anyway, her health is good.
The most important trips, however, are the ones she and her mother take to the National Institutes of Health, in Bethesda, Md. Since age 5, about the time the virus developed into AIDS, Hydeia has been a patient at the institute, which provides free medication and subsidized travel expenses.
This summer she will spend nine days in Bethesda while being introduced to a new medication, which her doctors hope will ward off another virus Hydeia suffers from called Epstein-Barr virus.
Patricia sought out the facility after Hydeia was first diagnosed, at a time when, she says, the Las Vegas medical community had little experience or interest in treating AIDS.
"When I brought Hydeia in to be tested," says Patricia, "the doctor was wearing goggles, yellow boots, a surgical mask and about three pairs of gloves. I told Hydeia, 'If he starts leading you to a spaceship, you start yelling.' "
They Fight the Stigma
It was also a time when both Hydeia and her mother learned to deal with the misconceptions and prejudices that pervaded the community.
"One day I sneezed at school," recalls Hydeia, "and the teacher sprayed me with bleach."
"The nursery wouldn't take her," Patricia says, "even though she had gone there for three years before anyone knew she was HIV-positive. Nobody wanted to deal with the problem."
So Patricia banded together with the two other Las Vegas parents with HIV-infected children and formed REACH Out (which stands for Relieving Every AIDS Child's Hurt), to eliminate the stigma surrounding the disease.
"She was a black girl and the child of an IV drug user," Patricia says. "I wasn't willing to add the prejudice of being an AIDS baby to her baggage."
Hydeia's mother began speaking at civic and business meetings in Las Vegas but soon found that Hydeia was the more persuasive speaker.
Inside the house, a tape of the Essence magazine awards plays on the television and several young girls in bathing suits and towels make their way over to watch.
Hydeia was honored at the event in the spring for her activism. Perched on a box to see out over the podium, she gave an acceptance speech that left much of the audience visibly moved. Comedian Chris Rock, who was honored later in the show, walked into the audience and presented his award to Hydeia's mother. And pop singer Hill, with tears streaming down her cheeks, told Hydeia she is an angel.
"I start to fog up every time I see this," says Patricia's brother, Walt Franklin, pulling off his cap and declaring his duties as head chef officially done.
Behind the television, an empty fish tank built into a partition holds a dozen or more plaques, certificates and honorary keys to several U.S. cities.
Hydeia's bedroom has also become a warehouse for gifts, including special collector's edition Barbie dolls, Nintendo 64 and Playstation electronic video games, porcelain dolls and Fubu designer sweat suits and sneakers.
But Hydeia seldom pays attention to her growing collection, and, as she slips into the kitchen to tell her mother she has taken her medication, she pays no attention to what plays on the screen.
It's the medication she can't ignore.
Hydeia takes her first pill at 6 a.m. She takes a chewable tablet at 10 a.m. along with 12 milligrams of a liquid medication. At 2 p.m., she takes another pill, followed by 12 more milligrams at 6 and a final pill at 10 at night.
Saving Another Child
She also takes antibiotics twice a day several days a week. And, since her medication must be taken on an empty stomach, her eating and sleeping habits revolve around the medication.
"This is nothing compared to what she used to take," says Patricia, who has always taught her daughter to take her medication herself. "There used to be three times this much in the house."
What remains is still, by most anyone's standards, a vast quantity. Dozens of bottles, tubes, needles and containers of liquid fill two deep shelves in the kitchen. It is more medication than could possibly fit into a bathroom cabinet--even five bathroom cabinets.
But it is not all for Hydeia.
Seven years ago, Hydeia met a 6-week-old baby girl at Las Vegas' University Medical Center and instantly fell in love. The baby, who is also HIV-positive, had also been given up by her mother.
Over the next several months, Hydeia began calling the nurses to ask about the girl's health and complaining more frequently about her own.
"She would say, 'Mommy, I think I've got a fever,' " recalls Patricia, with a smile. "We would get to the hospital, Hydeia would start playing with her, and the fever would disappear."
"I told my mother that this girl was going to die because there was nobody to love her," Hydeia says. "And that if we took her home, I would never get sick again."
Patricia did take the girl in and now, seven years later, Hydeia's health has indeed improved. Her trips to NIH have been scaled back to every other month. She is eating more regularly and has gained weight, and in the last four years has only been hospitalized for regular checkups. After nine years of home study, she even returned to school this last year to attend seventh grade. There, she received minimal special treatment from teachers and classmates.
Her visits to the hospital were counted as excused absences. She carried a hall pass that excused tardiness (which, she says, came in handy for sixth-period French, her least favorite class). And, because of her medication schedule, Hydeia was allowed to eat whenever she needed to.
'She Knows How Much
She Can Handle'
After school, Hydeia busied herself with an array of activities, including the Drill Team (cheerleaders for the basketball team), Human Relations (a community service club) and the bake team (because, she says, she'd like to become a caterer).
Hydeia's schedule often kept her out past 6 p.m. But this did not worry her mother.
"She knows how much she can handle," says Patricia, who says she raised Hydeia with the same stern discipline as with her other children.
Leaning against the kitchen wall, taking a long pull from a Virginia Slims 100, Patricia shakes her head at the screen door that has again fallen off its twisted metal track and says that she worries about the future.
Patricia can't find a job, she says, because employers don't want to hire someone who may have to leave on a moment's notice. She says Hydeia receives no money for her appearances. So for the last five years, since she and her second husband separated, she has had to rely on his income to survive.
In the meantime, she and her three youngest children live in a house the family once used as a rental. Her three grown children live on their own nearby.
But the neighborhood is not one Patricia is comfortable with.
A neighbor's house has several cracked windows and no running water, she says. Outside, the charred hull of a black Ford Escort sits, day after day, with its tires flattened and hood propped open.
Telephone wires crisscross and dangle over the Broadbents' dirt backyard.
"I went from living a middle-class life to living on a fixed income," Patricia says. "But you've got to make choices. And I needed to do what was right for Hydeia."
"Besides," she says, watching Hydeia being tossed playfully into the pool, "I know we've got a fight ahead of us. But this is our good time, so why rush it?"
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Three-Part Series on AIDS Topics
Southern California Living's three-part installment on AIDS:
June 28: Heart Touch, a service that provides massage therapy for AIDS patients.
July 6: Noches de Feria, an outreach program in Orange County for Spanish-speaking people who have AIDS or HIV.
Today: Profile of a 15-year-old AIDS activist who has the disease.
Sam Bruchey can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.