“Don’t look at what you can die from. Look at how you can live.”
Patricia Broadbent has spent a lifetime instilling this kind of positive attitude in herself and her family. Good thing. She’s living with cancer and three of her children are living with AIDS. She’s experienced a teacher spraying her daughter with bleach for fear of HIV and passengers changing seats on airplanes to distance themselves from her child’s IV drip. Yet, through it all, the mother of seven possesses a strongly optimistic disposition and refuses to allow pity parties.
“That’s life,” she says of her challenges. “Once you go through this with your kids, you realize what matters most, and that material things aren’t all that important.”
A former social worker residing in Las Vegas, Broadbent gave birth to one child and adopted six others, three of whom had contracted HIV from their birth mothers. The first of those adopted babies was Hydeia. In the 80s, when the little girl was three, Broadbent received a phone call informing her that Hydeia’s biological brother had tested positive for HIV.
“If you didn’t find out on your own, you didn’t know,” says Broadbent of treatment and information in those days. Like many children of the epidemic’s early years, Hydeia’s bedroom resembled a hospital intensive care unit, but Broadbent confronted the situation and took action. “I called gay and lesbian groups. They were in the loop and very helpful.”
She also started a nursery school and learning center with two other adoptive parents and created an atmosphere of education, support and tolerance for children with AIDS and their siblings. But perhaps the most seminal moment in her journey came when she heard a little boy speak of the disease and living with his family.
“Only the boy’s mom and dad knew he had AIDS, none of his siblings,” says Broadbent. “The little boy would come home everyday and peek around the front door, wondering if his family had abandoned him. His biggest fear was that he would get home and they’d all be gone. I left that meeting knowing I wasn’t going to put my daughter in the closet. The worst thing you can do to a child is not let them know what’s going on. We weren’t going to be ashamed.”
Broadbent talked openly with her daughter about the disease, emphasizing the idea that nothing was wrong with her, that it was society that had a problem. They talked about how ignorance would prevent some children from wanting to play with her and the difference between being sick and simply having the virus.
“You have to face the problem head-on,” says Broadbent, who admits she was literally a mess when first dealing with AIDS. “I don’t think hiding is a good thing. You can’t tell a child everything’s okay, then hide behind a wall. I felt like, if she’s here and can go through this, I’d better do something to make this work.”
In those early days, Broadbent refused to accept the words “there’s nothing we can do” from physicians. A social-services employee herself, she had learned the ropes of medical advocacy and enrolled her daughter in clinical drug trials at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. At the time, some accused Broadbent of treating her daughter like a guinea pig, but the proud mother and wife proclaims, “I never worry about what people say. I march to my own drummer.”
That march has resulted in both Broadbent and her daughter becoming advocates for AIDS awareness and acceptance. They have never viewed AIDS as a death sentence, and today Hydeia is an internationally recognized AIDS activist. Her most current project is the STAR Program, which provides outreach to national AIDS advocacy organizations and youth groups by using hip-hop music and its stars to raise people’s consciousness. Hydeia has appeared on 20/20, Good Morning America and Oprah. Together, mother and daughter chronicled their journey in You Get Past The Tears: A Memoir of Love and Survival.
“Don’t think about the negativity,” says Broadbent when speaking of getting through hard times. “Think about the positive, enjoy the good times. As long as there’s breath, there’s hope. You have to feel good about what you’re doing.”
Recently, Broadbent was diagnosed with lung cancer and is currently undergoing successful chemotherapy treatments. While facing her own mortality, she realized her small house wasn’t suitable for her daughters in the event of her passing. When the television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition learned of her plight, Broadbent became the recipient of a home she can feel proud of passing on to her children.
“That was amazing,” says Broadbent of her reality show experience. “The week I was away, I didn’t even think about what the house would look like, because I knew whatever they did, it would be better. For someone to give you a home and furniture—tree, a pool—I’ve have never had a feeling like that in my life.”
Broadbent says she’s never been one to look too far ahead and states, “I don’t think about dying. That’s not what my life is about—dying of cancer—and that’s not what my girls’ lives are about—dying of AIDS. No matter what happens, I know I have done the best I could do.”
She’s also grateful for the recognition, but adds, “I never took the kids in, thinking I would be rewarded, but [the recognition] makes you feel special.”
Something Patricia Broadbent has been helping children feel for a lifetime.