HIV activist William Brawner speaks out.
At the time, people knew little about the disease. But Brawner's family knew enough to understand that if his secret got out he'd live as an outcast. His mother and aunt made a pact to tell no one.
Brawner knew something was wrong--his mother told him he was sick--but it wasn't until he was five years old, with his mother seated nearby, that he was told he had HIV.
Dr. Richard Rutstein doesn't remember the exact words he used to tell Brawner, but he says telling a child that kind of news always starts with a series of questions. Do you know why you take medicines? Have you heard about HIV?
"It's different telling a [child] who has no idea what a virus is and telling an 18-year-old who has a clear idea of their future and mortality," Rutstein says. "His main concern was number one, could he still go to camp. I said yes. Two, could he still play ball? I said yes. Third, would he have more blood tests? I said no."
Rutstein had just begun practicing at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and back then treatment for HIV amounted to little more than psychosocial support for families, a far cry from the 28 medications offered today. The first medicine to treat HIV--azidothymidine (AZT)--wasn't available until 1990.
It seemed possible Brawner might not make it through adolescence. Though transfusion patients often had a better chance of survival, the life expectancy of someone with HIV back then was eight years.
His mother made life as comfortable for her son as she could. Friends were allowed to visit whenever he wanted. At Thanksgiving the table was filled with the food he requested. To make life easier, the family moved out of their struggling neighborhood to suburban Wyncote.
At 14, with symptoms that indicated an opportunistic infection--the type that takes advantage of a weak immune system--he was diagnosed with AIDS.
"At 10 or 11 Billy had very low T-cell counts," Rutstein recalls. "So low that you'd expect his survival might've only been a few years. But he kept on ticking. Something about his body kept his virus at bay, which is very unusual."
Rutstein continued to see his young patient throughout his adolescence but lost touch after Brawner graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1998 and was accepted at Howard.
"Ostensibly, while he was in college he was still my patient," Rutstein says. "But it was hard for him and I to connect. I can't go further than that."
Inside the student center at Howard University, some 130 people fill the auditorium as Brawner prepares to speak.
Looking at ease in a light gray pinstripe suit, a well-kept goatee framing his smile, Brawner chats with his wife and the teenagers from Philly who made the road trip with him. He swaggers to the podium when introduced, sizes up the crowd and begins to speak about a reality few of us will ever know.
"My name is William Brawner," he says. "I am 28 years old and I have been HIV-positive for 27 years."
When the crowd reacts slowly, he claps his hands enthusiastically, encouraging their applause, and quotes a statistic from the prior speaker: In the District of Columbia, one in 20 adults has HIV.
"When I heard those numbers, I heard a lot people, like, 'Ew, ew,'" he says, mimicking the crowd. "Like people with HIV are dirty, or like they did something that most of us in this room didn't."
He tells the Howard University audience they should thank God they're not HIV-positive because most of them had almost certainly participated in some kind of unprotected sexual activity.
Brawner's been to almost 50 colleges and high schools, raising awareness of HIV and proving by his very presence that AIDS isn't a death sentence. At the end of his talk, there's no roaring applause, no standing ovation. But it doesn't seem to matter to Brawner.
The teens from Philly who made the trip with him are the most devoted members of HAVEN Youth Center. For some it's their first time out of Philly. The hope is that when snapping photos of Brawner arm in arm with Magic Johnson, they'll see it's possible to be successful even with the infection.
More than a few voices caution that in the decade-plus since effective antiretroviral meds have transformed HIV infection from a death sentence into a chronic but manageable infection, too many people have lost their fear of the virus.
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