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The girl who changed Magic Johnson

By Wayne Drash, CNN
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri May 18, 2012
Hydeia Broadbent, in blue dress, sits next to Magic Johnson in a TV special for Nickelodeon 20 years ago.
Hydeia Broadbent, in blue dress, sits next to Magic Johnson in a TV special for Nickelodeon 20 years ago.
  • Hydeia Broadbent remains AIDS activist 20 years after TV special with Magic Johnson
  • Johnson says meeting her as a girl changed his life
  • Both were recently reunited for debut of ESPN documentary
  • Current generation doesn't "know reality of HIV/AIDS," Hydeia says

(CNN) -- Hydeia Broadbent was 7 when she had her Magic moment.

She was the tiny grade-schooler. He was one of the world's greatest basketball players.

As she cried, Magic Johnson reached his giant right hand out and placed it on her shoulder. Neither knew what their futures held, but they had one thing in common bigger than both of them: They were HIV-positive.

"I want people to know," Hydeia said, sniffling, "that we're just normal people."

"Aww, you don't have to cry," Johnson replied, "because we are normal people. OK? We are."

That scene was captured as part of a Nickelodeon AIDS special 20 years ago to inform America's youth that the disease could affect anyone.

One-on-one with Magic Johnson
Magic Johnson and wife Cookie on HIV
Magic Johnson: AIDS is still prevalent
1991: Magic Johnson's HIV announcement

On a recent March night in Los Angeles, Johnson again hugged Hydeia, his 6-foot-9 frame dwarfing her diminutive 4-foot-8 stature. Both were on hand for the screening in Los Angeles of "The Announcement," an ESPN documentary about his coming forward with HIV. Hydeia's tearful plea as a child is replayed in the documentary.

Twenty years after their first encounter, both continue to be pivotal voices for those with HIV: he the superstar who tested HIV-positive after having unprotected sex; she the innocent child infected with AIDS by a drug-using mom.

Watch a clip of "The Announcement" with Magic and Hydeia

"Hydeia means the world to me," Johnson said. "When I first met her 20 years ago and saw how emotional and devastated she was by the treatment she was getting from other people, it just broke my heart into pieces.

"That very moment was both sad and inspirational. It made me want to do more to bring awareness to the disease and educate people so that no one would have to feel the way she did that day."

Now 27, Hydeia remains a bundle of energy, an inspirational woman whose voice refuses to be silent. She speaks at conferences, universities and schools with a passion to inform America's youth about the realities of living with HIV/AIDS: of sleepless nights, of nauseated mornings, of never-ending doctor's appointments and tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills.

"I try to tell it as real as I can, that this isn't a disease they want," she said. "The current generation, they don't know the reality of HIV/AIDS. They look at me and Magic Johnson and think you can pop a pill and be OK. They don't know the seriousness of the disease. They don't know the side effects of the medicine. They don't know the financial realities of the situation.

"They really don't know that you can die."

Magic Johnson and 'The Announcement'

AIDS at the age of 3

The men looked like astronauts. They wore double masks, double gloves, double gowns. Hydeia was 3.

The lab techs at the hospital pulled out needles. Hydeia screamed.

"Dad, why are you letting them do this to me?" she cried.

It was 1987, when the AIDS epidemic was sweeping America. It caught even the medical community off-guard. Doctors knew little about the disease, especially in children.

Just days earlier, Loren and Patricia Broadbent had received a phone call from the state of Nevada. The Broadbents had taken in Hydeia when she was 6 weeks old, after her biological mother left her at a Las Vegas hospital. Hydeia's name at the time: "Baby Girl Kellogg."

The voice on the call said there was a child similar to Hydeia. A woman by the same name as her birth mother, known only as "Kellogg," had given birth to a boy at the same hospital and left him there. Both tested positive for AIDS.

The Broadbents were told their daughter needed to get tested.

It took 14 days to get the results. There were prayers of hope during that time, but there also had been signs.

As a baby, Hydeia had suffered for weeks from crack and heroin withdrawal. "She was OK as long as you held her," Loren Broadbent said. "But if you set her down, she would have tremors and just start crying."

She regularly had coughs, colds and sinus infections, too.

The family received the news by phone, a sanitized voice that spoke in an official clip. Hydeia had AIDS. The state asked the Broadbents whether they wanted to give her back. Absolutely not, they said.

Doctors told the Broadbents that Hydeia would die by the age of 5, that they should make funeral preparations.

When she sneezed in kindergarten, the teacher sprayed her with bleach. During one hospital visit in Las Vegas, a doctor scolded the couple in front of Hydeia.

"Don't you feel terrible for what you did to your child?" the doctor asked. "You've given this child a death sentence."

The girl who "exuded joy and hope"

The Broadbents saw it as a mission to save their child. "Our main concern was: What can we do to make her quality of life better?" her dad said.

Hydeia and her father initially traveled from Las Vegas to Los Angeles to get treatment at UCLA Medical Center. Her mother was too devastated by Hydeia's diagnosis to travel at first. But once Patricia recovered, she began attending HIV/AIDS conferences to learn as much as she could.

Doctors recommended that Hydeia enroll in programs at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where the research agency was conducting an array of experiments. At the NIH, Hydeia would be put on what would become known as the AIDS cocktail, a combination of drugs that doesn't cure the disease but provides patients with a better quality of life.

"If it wasn't for that NIH program," her dad said, "I honestly believe Hydeia wouldn't be here today."

Elizabeth Glaser raised awareness of AIDS in children. Hydeia Broadbent, right, is photographed with her.
Elizabeth Glaser raised awareness of AIDS in children. Hydeia Broadbent, right, is photographed with her.

At the Bethesda medical facility, Hydeia, then 5, caught the eye of Elizabeth Glaser, the wife of actor Paul Michael Glaser from the hit TV show "Starsky & Hutch." Elizabeth Glaser, who was HIV-positive, was touring the NIH facility after speaking before Congress about the need for better HIV/AIDS treatment for women and children.

Hydeia was pretending to be April O'Neil, a news reporter from "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," asking other children what it was like to live with AIDS. Glaser instantly fell in love.

Glaser had contracted HIV in a blood transfusion while giving birth in 1981. Her daughter, Ariel, became HIV-positive through breast milk and died of AIDS in 1988. The couple's next child, Jake, contracted HIV in utero.

Desperate to save their son and other children suffering from AIDS, the Glasers created the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation to spur research for children. Glaser, who died of AIDS in 1994, asked Hydeia's mother whether she would allow her daughter to speak publicly.

"I started speaking out because a lot of my friends were not public with the fact they had HIV/AIDS," Hydeia said. "They hid in secrecy. Their schoolmates didn't even know."

Hydeia became the face of children with AIDS in America, especially within the African-American community. She appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "The Maury Povich Show," "Good Morning America" and numerous other programs. At the 1996 Republican Convention, Hydeia, then 12, told the crowd, "I am the future, and I have AIDS."

Susie Zeegen met Hydeia when she was 6 and says she was "this dear, dear little girl who exuded joy and hope."

"What stands out about Hydeia, even in those days and obviously now at age 27, she was never ever about 'poor me' or the sadness of a child with HIV," said Zeegen, one of the founders of the Glaser Foundation. "She was always about the kid who was living with HIV and had every intention of continuing to do so."

Glaser represented a woman and mother with HIV. Johnson put the face of a superstar to the cause. And Hydeia symbolized the children of America suffering from HIV/AIDS. Together, they worked with the foundation to spread the message of the far-reaching effects of HIV/AIDS.

The combination was "very important," Zeegen said, "because it brought more attention to the needs of families that were living with HIV."

"The world could see the faces that were part of this epidemic, and they were faces that the world could respond to."

Living with a "life sentence"

Today, there are days when Hydeia can't get out of bed. Sometimes, she's so sick her mornings are spent with her head hung over the toilet.

Hydeia Broadbent, 27, remains an AIDS activist determined to speak out.
Hydeia Broadbent, 27, remains an AIDS activist determined to speak out.

Every morning, she must take her cocktail of five pills. Her tiny frame is partly a result of medicine stunting her growth.

If it's a good day, she goes to the gym to exercise. Staying fit is key to living with AIDS, she says. She eats healthily too, because a person with HIV/AIDS is more prone to cancer and heart disease.

"If you're HIV-negative, I would say, 'Stay that way.' If you're positive, I would say, 'There's life after a positive test result, but it is a hassle,' " Hydeia said.

Nearly 1.2 million Americans are infected with HIV, including those with AIDS. An estimated 20% don't even know they're infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of those living with HIV in the United States (46%) are African-American.

An estimated 50,000 more Americans will become infected this year, the CDC says; 16,000 Americans will die this year from AIDS.

It's numbers like those that drive Hydeia. "We have grown complacent in America, and in our complacency we've failed to educate our youth.

"There's so much misinformation. People think there's a cure. They think Magic's cured," she said. "There is no cure."

The past 20 years have seen dramatic improvement in the treatment of HIV/AIDS. Although a positive test result is no longer a death sentence, Hydeia says, "it's a life sentence."

"It's always there. You're always going to have HIV or AIDS. You're always going to be taking medicine. You're always going to be going to the doctor's office. You're always going to be getting your blood drawn."

Her medicine costs $3,500 to $5,000 a month. She relies on government assistance, which covers more than half the cost. She has to apply every six months for aid and provide the government with bank statements and other paperwork to show that she's qualified and still has AIDS. She notes the irony of having to reapply since "every six months, your AIDS isn't going to go away."

"It's sometimes a headache," she said "but this is what you have to do if you have HIV/AIDS."

Hydeia was named one of the Top 100 African-American "History Makers in the Making" last year by the Grio, a news website dedicated to African-American issues. She's also received the American Red Cross Spirit Award and an Essence Award.

In addition to speaking engagements, she is writing a memoir about her life with AIDS and trying to produce a television special using hip-hop music and celebrities to raise awareness in the younger generation.

Hydeia still runs into people who are afraid of her when she tells them she has AIDS. She says she was never ostracized like so many of her peers were in their early years. Growing up, some of her HIV-positive friends were told to leave school, asked to change churches or barred from swimming pools.

"When you think of HIV/AIDS, the first reaction is fear. I find right now in 2012, there's still so much stigma," she said. "People feel like AIDS is an immoral disease. Like if somebody has AIDS, they did something morally wrong."

That stigma -- that people believe AIDS is a gay or drug-related disease -- remains prevalent, she says. According to the CDC, 28% of Americans with HIV are hetereosexuals, and 17% are injection drug users.

"I have dedicated my whole life to this fight," she said. "I don't hate my life. I feel like I'm really blessed. But at the same time, my life doesn't have to be their life. I didn't have a choice when it came to HIV/AIDS, and people do have a choice."

She had never known how much her 1992 encounter with Johnson had affected him until they reunited in March. They'd seen each other at HIV/AIDS events over the years, but this time, he told her what an inspiration she was to him.

"To see her now as a thriving, healthy, smart and beautiful young lady makes me feel good and very proud," Johnson said. "She is doing a tremendous job and touching so many young people with her HIV/AIDS education and outreach initiatives."

"I don't know how to describe it," she said, "just shocked to know that I played a big part in his life."

For Hydeia, it's confirmation to keep speaking out.

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