April 1, 2011
Welcome to This Positive Life! We have with us Richard Brodsky and his wife, Jodi Brodsky. In 1997, Richard contracted HIV through having unprotected sex in an extramarital affair with another man. Despite his infidelity and diagnosis, he and his loving wife of 30 years, Jodi, stayed together and their relationship persevered. In 2002, the couple was dealt another blow when Richard was diagnosed with brain cancer and was given only two to four years to live. Thankfully he battled back, and the couple talks to us about the importance of love and forgiveness, being in a serosdiscordant relationship, and the foundation they started to support AIDS orphans in Africa.
Olivia Ford: This is Olivia Ford reporting for The Body. Welcome to This Positive Life. Richard, do you want to introduce yourself?
Richard Brodsky: Sure, my name's Richard Brodsky. I'm HIV positive since 1997, a brain cancer survivor since 2002. I'm also a marathon runner.
Olivia Ford: Well, welcome to This Positive Life.
Richard Brodsky: Thank you.
Olivia Ford: Let's start at the very beginning of your personal history with HIV. Can you start by describing how you found out you were HIV positive?
Richard Brodsky: Yeah, it was back in 1997. And I had been involved with some men. I really wasn't that much aware about HIV and AIDS. I didn't even know there was a difference. I thought if a person was relatively healthy, you don't get these diseases. I was really, really grossly uninformed. And one time I was with a guy and he said to me, "You ought to get tested because I'm HIV positive."
Olivia Ford: Was this someone you had been with a number of times?
Richard Brodsky: A couple of times, sure.
Olivia Ford: And you were married at the time as well.
Richard Brodsky: Right. Yeah, it was very difficult because I just really, really loved my wife a lot, and having these bisexual feelings, I guess I wished I could stay faithful, but that wasn't the case back then. Although, I have been faithful to my wife the last eight years.
Olivia Ford: That's wonderful. Were you in several relationships starting from the beginning of your marriage or did that sort of come about later?
Richard Brodsky: No, I was always faithful to my wife. Years ago, when I was in Iran, there were a couple of gay incidents but that was before I was married. I came back to America, and the next thing to do was get married, raise a family, which is what we did. I was a fairly successful architect. I found I was gaining a little bit of weight. I wanted to get back in shape. I was reading some men's magazines. I guess the male body, it's attractive. So is the female body. And that's sort of how it started.
Olivia Ford: How old were you then in '97?
Richard Brodsky: In '97, well, I'm 58 now, so I think I was about like 46, something like that.
Olivia Ford: So this gentleman you were with said, "You better get tested because I'm positive." Did you go and get tested immediately or was it a while before youwent?
Richard Brodsky: I got tested immediately. I don't remember if I did or not and the doctor said, "No, you won't have any results for a three-month period."
Olivia Ford: So you mean three months after exposure you couldn't get tested.
Richard Brodsky: Right.
-- Richard Brodsky
Olivia Ford: So then did you wait for the three-month window period and then go?
Richard Brodsky: Right.
Olivia Ford: So what was the circumstance of getting your result?
Richard Brodsky: I went to the doctor and he sort of said, "Well, these tests, there's a possibility that you're HIV positive. There's a probability," and he kept on saying it like that, and gradually he said, "Looks like it's 99.4 percent certain that you are." I started crying, "I have a wife. I love my wife." He said something like, "Well, maybe you don't have to tell her because there's another test that will confirm it 100 percent." I said, "No, you don't understand. I have to tell my wife."
And I wasn't sure. The way I saw it, there were three choices. Actually there were four -- she might kill me on the spot. But the three choices were: We could get divorced, she could get everything, I could take a small studio in the city and continue my practice; we could remain married, which was what I was really hoping we'd be able to do; or I could kill myself for bringing so much shame to my family. But I have three daughters. I don't think I could have really done that anyhow.
I was very fortunate because Jodi, she kind of like just immediately said, "No, we're going to work this out." It was a struggle at the beginning because we didn't know too much about it and all I knew was that HIV, you get it. I found out a little about it at the time, "It's like a death sentence." That was back in '97. But they were just coming out with the cocktail. And I was even that much aware [about treatment], but Jodi did a lot of research and she found that out.
Olivia Ford: So now, when you told her, it sounds like very soon after your diagnosis.
Richard Brodsky: Right.
Olivia Ford: Now did she know already that you had been involved intimately with [other men]?
Since 2006, the Richard M. Brodsky Foundation has sponsored seven orphan dinner dances in Kisumu, Kenya, for 2,800 orphans, on the days preceding the World AIDS Marathons. View more photos and projects.
Richard Brodsky: No, because I was hoping I was going to be HIV negative. I was hoping I would be able to stop this bisexual phase of my life. We were married. We seemed like we were the perfect couple. We had three lovely daughters. We both ran marathons. I had a successful architectural practice. The kids were popular. Everything was going pretty good for us. If you were going to see 100 people, we'd probably be the last couple you would think had any problem like that going on.
Olivia Ford: So now you say there was a little bit of struggle in the beginning. You told her you were positive. You knew there were these three options. And then it turned out that she wanted to work it out. Can you talk a little bit about some of the tougher times, how it was for you and how you ended up coming to terms with your own diagnosis and the future of your relationship?
Richard Brodsky: I just felt very, very guilty. What had I done? I wasn't a drug abuser, cigarette smoker. I didn't drink. I didn't do drugs and I go, "Why can't I control this aspect of my life?"
I tend to be a perfectionist. I can be demanding. If I'm demanding on other people, I'm also demanding on myself. So that part was very frustrating.
The kids were away at camp for the summer and anytime, let's say, I'd be in a good mood, then I'd get depressed. Like, "You don't have a right to be in a good mood." Jodi and I would drive to work together. It would be easy to start crying during work and everything. But Jodi was good. She was always very supportive. And it didn't look like I was dying. I was running every day.
I remember starting to take the medicine. I didn't take it right away. I thought I could beat the illness because I was really strong and healthy. And my T cells started to go down. I was at 500 originally. It went down to 375. I guess I realized I better start taking the medicine. But some of the doctors back then, I remember getting sent to one doctor, I don't think he ever saw an AIDS patient before. He was very unfeeling. He said something like, "I hope you have life insurance." Then I think that set my wife off. It set me off. So there were times at the beginning it was very difficult.
Olivia Ford: So now quickly just circling back to your diagnosis, were you ever able to talk to the man who originally suggested you go get tested? Did you see him again? Did you ever make friends?
Richard Brodsky: Yeah, I might have seen him maybe once. I was kind of annoyed at him. That was pretty much about it. Subsequently, I think he died also.
-- Richard Brodsky
Olivia Ford: And at the time, it sounds as if, because he was telling you to get tested, these were unprotected encounters, I imagine.
Richard Brodsky: Right, they were.
Olivia Ford: How soon after you told Jodi did you start to tell your other family members? How old were your kids and did you talk to them?
Richard Brodsky: We decided not to tell the children. We thought someday we would tell them, maybe after they were all married off. They were around teenagers, a little younger. Three daughters, they're five years apart. And there's also terrible stigma associated with it, so we didn't want to tell them. I think the first person we did tell was my mother. She freaked out a little bit. It was difficult with each person in the family finding out and the reactions. I could say, "I could write a book about it," but that's pretty much what I did. I wrote a book. It was actually a gift to my wife, to keep our family loving at home. And it was also a plea to get AIDS medicine to AIDS sufferers all over the world.
Olivia Ford: Wow. That's amazing. So now when did you end up telling your children? Did they just find out over the natural course of time? I assume they know now because you're very public about it.
Richard Brodsky: Yeah, of course they know now. That was also very difficult. My middle daughter found out first. She was reading a journal. I wasn't actually chronicling the whole situation, thinking one day I'd write a book. I felt really bad because I don't like lying and it was one of the few lies that I did make. I told her I got it from a bloody towel at a gym, which was -- it doesn't pay to lie. It really doesn't.
-- Richard Brodsky
And we said, "Do you want to talk to your sisters? Do you want to let them know?" And she said, "No." And she seemed pretty much OK with it because she saw me running every day. And it was right around that time that I ran my fastest marathon. It was around 15 months after I was diagnosed with HIV. I did a marathon in three hours, 23 minutes. So here she is hearing this guy's got this disease that people die from, but he seems like he's doing OK.
My other daughter found out -- I forget exactly how she found out, my oldest daughter -- she kept it to herself, which probably wasn't too good an idea. I think her boyfriend found out and he was threatening to reveal the secret of the Brodsky family that could destroy our family. I had been keeping a journal and I was like, "Wait a second. Something just doesn't sound right. I'm living with this illness. I'm able to run marathons. This is not something I'm supposed to be quiet about. And if everybody keeps quiet about it, you're not going to get any AIDS advocacy."
So it was at that point I said to Jodi, "Jodi, you know what? I think I'm going to write this book." And she said it was OK. We didn't tell my youngest daughter. The book was pretty much done when we got around to telling her. Jodi said something very funny. Pretty much she says, "Don't tell your mother you're writing this book. She's going to tell you she's going to lie down on the railroad tracks." So finally we didn't tell her and the book eventually came out and my youngest daughter said it was OK. I think she was like 13 at the time. The book is Jodi: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told. It's just a love story. It's a gift to my wife.
Olivia Ford: That's amazing. Now how would you say your relationships with family and friends have changed since you've been diagnosed and been so open about your HIV status?
Richard Brodsky: My wife's my best friend. We celebrated our 30th anniversary by running a marathon last year. The kids are a little tough on me. They see it, well, why don't I go back to work? I was a successful architect. But it's a little hard for me. From the brain cancer, there are times I just need to lie down and rest during the day. I get headaches easily. And it just feels right what I'm doing now.
Olivia Ford: Well, switching gears a little bit, especially because you mentioned the brain cancer just now, talk a little bit about what your health has been like since your HIV diagnosis. You said that your T cells started to go down a little bit. You started meds, it sounds like, fairly early on. But please talk a little bit about your HIV health and then also how you found out you had brain cancer.
Richard Brodsky: I'd been basically on Combivir (AZT/3TC) and Viracept (nelfinavir) since 1997. My T cells, generally, they're always in the range of 1000 and the viral load is undetectable. I've been very fortunate. I really haven't had these opportunistic infections. What happened was after I wrote this book -- this is getting into the brain cancer -- I was going on a book tour. It was really exciting coming back to New York. It was pretty much the most exciting week in my life. I was really looking forward to it. Jodi and I were going to be running in the New York City Marathon. Pfizer was considering having Jodi and I as spokespeople for their medicine. I was doing a book signing at Barnes and Noble near the White House. I was doing one in Greenwich Village at their store. I was speaking at American University and NYU. So everything was really, really going good.
At the book signing at Barnes and Noble, though, I had a seizure. A few weeks later, Pfizer wasn't interested in me anymore, but it had nothing to do with being HIV positive. And then a few weeks later, I went from being relatively healthy -- the HIV, I never thought of myself as really being sick from it -- to finding out that I had terminal brain cancer. I was expected to live only two to four years. I guess I'm not like a big tough guy and some people keep these things quiet.
-- Richard Brodsky
I remember calling my eldest daughter and just being really, really upset with everything. She'd been in school in Florida. She came back because I had a book signing in Washington D.C. and authors are not supposed to cancel. Maybe brain cancer would have been an exception but as long as I could stand, I wouldn't miss the book signing. So we went to Washington. We had a really nice time. It was a real bonding experience.
And then the brain cancer was like two days before the marathon. It was going to be a tough one. I had messed my shoulder up pretty bad also -- had a bad fall. And I sort of wanted to get back to running. I would ask my doctors, "When do you think I can run again?" They'd look at me like I was crazy. Like, "Well, here's a list of funeral parlors." All my doctors, after the surgery, they wanted to put me on chemotherapy. I did have radiation.
But I found one doctor -- she's actually a board member of the foundation, Casilda Balmaceda -- she was wonderful. She was like, "No, you don't go on chemo. That's not for you." And I was able to start running again. And a year later, I finished the New York City Marathon. Dr. Balmaceda finished it with me.
Two years from the day of my brain surgery, Jodi and I, we were flying to Africa to participate in the first-ever World AIDS Marathon, an event my foundation sponsored. I think what happened was at a certain point, when they said I had two to four years to live, this was in November 2002, it seemed like I was doing pretty good. I got the feeling, "I don't think this is really going to kill me in two to four years." And my brain oncologist suggested I start a foundation. And I said, "OK, will you be a board member?" And she said, "Yes!"
Olivia Ford: Wow. And now how many years has it been since you were given two to four years?
Richard Brodsky: 2002. It's 2011. So it's about eight and a half years.
Olivia Ford: Wow. How do you think you were able to beat it? I assume you've been in remission for a number of years.
Richard Brodsky: I still go for MRIs every three months -- keeps close tabs on how I'm doing. I did have a seizure about two years ago. I tend to eat healthy. I exercise. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I have a very loving, supportive wife. And the running, I think, really helps. I like definite goals, what I want to accomplish with my life, which I think helps a lot. We also sponsor these local runs on Long Island. The comradery of the runners, I think, also is very important. They're very supportive.
Olivia Ford: But what was the treatment like for the brain cancer?
Richard Brodsky: They just gave me radiation. It wasn't too bad. I was also able to even run during that time. Jodi had to drive me every day. I wasn't allowed to drive for six months. It did not leave me with any side effects, so I was OK from that.
Richard and Jodi at the start of the 2010 5K AIDS/Cancer Run/Walk. The Foundation will be sponsoring its fourth annual 5K event on June 12, 2011. Register for the event.
Olivia Ford: That's wonderful. I'm glad to hear.
Richard Brodsky: I sort of feel like a cat. I got three of these lives. My wife is with me, the HIV, the brain cancer. But I don't want to say that because I'm just very fortunate.
[Richard's wife, Jodi Brodsky, joins in the conversation.]
Olivia Ford: Jodi, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Jodi Brodsky: That's OK. Thanks for having me here.
Olivia Ford: And how did you two meet?
Jodi Brodsky: We're both passionate about running, well now we are. But when I met him, I was in law school and I was very busy and focused, having no time except to do my running and studying, so when he called, he told me, "The rabbi gave me your number." I had gone to a neighboring synagogue and taken some courses and the rabbi never told me, "Give me your number. I'm going to give it to someone who comes to the synagogue." But Richard came and he went to a lecture there and he gave him my number. And when he called, I was like, "I don't know. The rabbi?" I was questioning it, but I told him, "Well, I run at this park early in the morning. You can meet me there."
So he met me at this park in Texas. It's called Memorial Park and it's a funny story. We started running and he was a little nervous because he hadn't run five miles -- I used to do five miles a day or six miles, and he hadn't run that far. So we started jogging and then he started talking to me a little. I don't know, I was just trying to focus with the running, because when you're running sometimes you have to concentrate on how you're going and your breathing and everything. Then I think I told him, "You know, could you be a little quiet?" That story comes out years later, he's telling me like, "I don't know. Maybe you told me to be quiet. How could you tell me to be quiet?" But we laugh about it. So we met that way and he really ended up enjoying the running and the relationship developed. That was our first date really, a run.
Richard Brodsky: We were actually engaged three months later and we married like about a year from the time we met each other.
Olivia Ford: So now asking you the same question that I asked Richard, from your perspective. How did you find out that Richard was HIV positive?
Jodi Brodsky: My girls were away in camp for the summer, so we had a couple of summers that were really nice, because he worked in the city. So during the year, I didn't get to see him as much. He was working really hard. But in the summer, they finally, the last one went to camp, so they all were there together, upstate New York. So then we were able to spend the time together. We were having our regular summer together. And then he called me downstairs. There was like a gym downstairs in the building where he worked. I would go to work with him every day and help him out. And he told me to sit down, there was something he needed to tell me. And I was like, "OK."
-- Jodi Brodsky
I think he first told me he was bisexual. It was very shocking to me because there were no signs. There was never any talking about that, feelings that he had before or anything like that. He was my best friend. We were very passionate about each other and close. So it was very shocking. Then he told me, "I have to tell you something else." He's HIV positive. All in one time to tell someone two very serious conditions, it's very shocking to find that out. So that's how he told me.
And then he goes, "Well, you don't have to come home with me. I don't have to go home with you tonight. You could think about what you want to do." You know, we were very close and I even for one minute -- Richard has written a book about this situation, our story -- the story is, I never for a minute said, "No, don't come home with me. I have to rethink this whole situation." I kind of knew. He said he wanted to remain together and something had happened and he got involved.
So I just said, "We'll find out about this." He told me, "I did a little research. I think people are living with it now." So it was all a lot that we had to -- I did research on hotlines and found out about what you do when someone first gets diagnosed. But my initial reaction was shocking. It was shocking, surprising.
Olivia Ford: So now what was the first thing that you did that helped you come to terms with Richard's diagnosis and helped you get over some of that shock?
Jodi Brodsky: I think I was talking years ago -- he's been infected with the virus, how many years is it now?
Richard Brodsky: Since '97, so it's about almost 14 years.
The foundation donated toys to children living with cancer at a medical center in New York, gives money to AIDS and cancer research and provides toiletries and gift items to people living with HIV and cancer. Donate to the foundation.
Jodi Brodsky: There were a lot of hotlines that you can call, so I really did call people, talk to people. Then, we found three doctors. So we did interview like three different doctors. The doctors would give us information. We felt like, who was the most knowledgeable, what were their ideas, how to start treatment or not.
So I think calling on the hotlines, I'm a very talkative person, I don't keep things in. So I got on the line with people and talked to people that I never met before and told them the situation, and asked what should we be doing. So that really helped me. I guess I felt like sometimes people would say -- like another woman would have said, "That's disgusting and I don't want to be with you. How could this happen?" I felt more sorry for him.
Olivia Ford: Besides the hotlines that you went to and talking to doctors and things, was there any place that you went to for support, as far as in person? Did you go to support groups or did you ever meet any other wives or partners of HIV-positive folks? Did you do any of that kind of thing?
Jodi Brodsky: Not really.
Richard Brodsky: It really wasn't our thing to do. I don't know. I don't think we wallowed. Maybe we got over it -- initially it took some time. I'm trying to think.
Jodi Brodsky: I mean we used more of the doctor as our sense of support. The one doctor we ended up going with is a small practice, a sole practitioner, so we found out information from him and he would constantly tell us about, "OK, do you understand about the safe sex? And you understand exactly what you have to do?" So I think we looked at him for our support.
Olivia Ford: It sounds as if you all are very good support for each other as well.
Richard Brodsky: Yeah, for sure.
Jodi Brodsky: Yeah, right.
Richard Brodsky: This was my gift to my wife. [Picks up book.]
Olivia Ford: Hold it up.
Richard Brodsky: She's really just the best. Donald Trump, he may have more money than me, but he doesn't have a wife on a cover of a book.
Olivia Ford: Since you touched on this a little bit in talking about your going to your doctor for information, how has Richard's diagnosis affected the intimate aspects of your relationship and your sex life? Was there a lot of change?
Jodi Brodsky: A little bit of changes, because you do have to be very cautious. We're still intimate and I'm not scared about it. I think maybe people would say, "Do you feel like you might contract the virus?" I guess I felt like that's part of a relationship. Intimate's done. We know how to practice safe sex, so we're very careful.
Richard Brodsky: I think the other thing is, we'd also read in a survey, of 93 couples, where one was positive and the other was negative, over a five-year period, if they were using protection, none of them spread the virus to the other person. So I think that was somewhat comforting for both of us.
Olivia Ford: Absolutely. Condoms are very effective. It's true. Thank you for that. So now switching gears to what brought you together, it sounds like marathon running. How did you decide, each of you individually, because it sounds like you ran before you knew each other, how did you decide to run your first marathon?
Richard Brodsky: It's a bond, the marathon running. Jodi's great because when we go to Africa and sponsor this World AIDS Marathon -- I don't know, if I could just show you this picture for a minute. I kind of really like this picture a lot. [Picks up photo.]
Olivia Ford: Hold it up for a second so that it's over your faces. I just want to make sure it gets seen. OK.
Richard Brodsky: It was a very chance picture. It was the 2006 World AIDS Marathon. This guy Zeus got in the way. Zeus is the supreme god in Greek mythology. If you go on the Web site, the caption sort of reads like, "Even Zeus came from another time to see how the modern-day marathon was faring. May this be a sign that a cure or vaccine is in the near future." We just love going there. We've been to Africa six times. It really gives us a sense of purpose because we have three daughters here. I sort of feel if Jodi and I were living in Africa, would our daughters be one of the 11,500,000 orphans living in Sub-Saharan Africa? So when we go there, we also sponsor these orphan dinner dances. And they're such uplifting experiences. It's this side of Africa that you don't see on television.
There are these kids there and we see them also. They're poor. They're skinny. They're under-nourished. They don't have shoes. They are barefoot. But when we do these orphan dinner dances, we've done them for 2,800 orphans and we like to go back to the same place, and the kids remember us. I don't know who enjoys it more, if the kids do or if we do. But we really enjoy it. And then we have these children's walks. Our board members are Kenyan. They're really good. They just organize everything. It's a joint collaboration. We pay for some things. They pay for some other things. It just works.
Olivia Ford: How did you decide to start doing international work? And why Kenya? And why a marathon? What was the process?
Richard Brodsky: Originally I wanted to go to South Africa because they have the worst problems but it was tough getting anybody interested. Then we tried going to Ethiopia and that didn't work out. Then somebody said, "Hey, I know you're working on getting your foundation established, but in the meantime you can use my foundation to raise funds." In 2004, we were able to get an orphanage started for 60 orphans and we were able to donate some money to other AIDS projects in Africa, some AIDS research at the University of Florida at Gainesville. But we always felt we could do better.
It's not even just for HIV/AIDS. There's another statistic that UNICEF put out there. There's 25,000, I'm not saying it wrong, 25,000 children who are dying worldwide every day. And the leading cause of death is pneumonia, which they get from unclean drinking water. So that's a real problem in itself. When they talk about, "We're beating AIDS and we're making remarkable strides," I don't find that necessarily to be completely true because right now you're having about two million dying every year. That's still a lot of people. It's about 5,500 people dying every day. You're getting 7,200 people newly infected. So it doesn't sound so good. You get a lot of people dying and then you're getting more people than who are dying who are being infected. There's just a lot of awareness that needs to be raised about it.
Olivia Ford: It sounds like you've done a lot of awareness raising in your own local community as well because you do local events, right? You do a 5K run and walk. Can you talk a little bit about the local events you've done and what the reaction's been?
Richard Brodsky: OK, we can really get caught up in it. In fact, we're going to have our fourth annual event in June. But we also do -- we've done three of them already -- three free runs. We don't charge anybody for them. And the idea is we really want to try and get people with HIV and cancer exercising, because I think the running has really helped me. I'd like others to get that benefit as well. So they're really nice events. We get tons of food. We give out, that event, we give out 45,000 toiletry gift items and we say to everybody, "Listen, even if you're healthy, just take it and give it to someone living with HIV or cancer." Because the thing about these events is we don't want anyone to know who's living with HIV or cancer and who's healthy.
Olivia Ford: So now just a couple questions in wrapping up. How do you think Richard's having HIV has changed each of you individually and how do you think it's changed you as a couple?
Richard Brodsky: I think I used to be a lot quieter, kind of like tended to not get into any trouble. I was an architect. I had a decent practice. I don't know. Everything seemed kind of normal. Now, I guess, that I have a foundation, I realize there are so many wrong things that are happening in the world. I tend to be a lot more outspoken.
Olivia Ford: And Jodi, what about you?
Jodi Brodsky: I guess you try to, as an adult, plan your future and think, "In 20 years, we're going to be doing this. We're going to be doing that." With an illness, in years to come, I say if someone has an experience with a person with an illness, they just don't know the ramifications, like what happens. In our family, we've been fine, but different. He was the main breadwinner. I had to go back to work. So many things change like that. So I think it changed me just to worry more about day by day. I mean you'd like to say you're worried about your retirement and this and that, but with him it's like, thank goodness he has these years he has.
As a couple, I think it's just changed us. I think it's made us even closer. You can't listen to what everyone else is saying because we would have never gotten our story out if we listened to anyone else, because in our family it was like, "Don't talk about that. Don't publicize it. Quiet." And that's just not what we are or what we believe in. So I think that's how it's changed us.
Richard Brodsky: Very well said. I don't know what I could say.
Olivia Ford: Indeed. On that note, we'll bring this interview to a close. It was such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
To learn more about or to register for the 5K AIDS Cancer Event, visit www.5kaidscancerrunwalk.com.
To find out more about Richard and his work, visit the Richard M. Brodsky Foundation website.
Olivia Ford is the community manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.