On the Fierce Determination of Mothers Who Inspire Me

Huffington Post | May 10, 2013

In honor of Mother's Day, author Meridith Barnett writes about her friendship with Elizabeth Glaser and how Elizabeth's ferocity and courage should be a constant reminder to continue the fight so all Moms to have healthy, happy HIV-free children.

When I was about 11-years-old, a college sorority sister of my mother's started making frequent trips to Washington, DC, where she'd stay in our guestroom. The business she came on was unclear, but Elizabeth herself was pure, vibrant, Technicolor -- beautiful, animated, whip-smart, and hilarious. She lit up our dinner table reminiscing with my mom about their days as at the University of Wisconsin, and regaling us with stories of what appeared to be a glamorous, red carpet life in Hollywood with her husband.

Elizabeth was married to Paul Michael Glaser, the actor and director best known as Starsky from the hit '70s TV show Starsky and Hutch. He and Elizabeth had met when he pulled up next to her in his convertible, marveled at her beauty and asked her out; it was the most romantic story I'd ever heard.

But while Elizabeth's spirit was blithe, her business in Washington was a life and death matter. Unbeknownst to basically everyone, Elizabeth had contracted HIV after receiving a contaminated blood transfusion while giving birth to her daughter, Ariel, in 1981. Like many other HIV-infected mothers at the time, she unknowingly passed the virus on to Ariel through breastfeeding. Her son, Jake, born in 1984, contracted HIV from his mother in utero before Elizabeth and Ariel were diagnosed. The terrible news came in 1985 when Ariel began suffering from a serious of mysterious illnesses and both mother and daughter were tested. Ariel received treatment with AZT, which at that time, had only been approved for adults. But at but at that late stage in her illness, it was too late. She died in 1988.

So here was Elizabeth barely a year later -- hanging with us in Washington by night and spending her days in meetings with politicians and financial types trying to generate funding and awareness for the development of pediatric AIDS drugs, which were then basically nonexistent.

Remember, however, that those were the early days of the AIDS epidemic. It was a time when stories abounded of parents pulling their children from classrooms where there was a student with AIDS in the class; when people feared eating in the same restaurants as a person with AIDS. So as Elizabeth began to put together the Pediatric AIDS Foundation, she kept her work, these meetings in DC, and her story secret because she feared the repercussions of putting her young son and famous husband in the spotlight.

Nevertheless, it didn't take long for the National Enquirer to start sniffing around. That was when Elizabeth and Paul decided to share the truth with the Los Angeles Times, and later 60 Minutes, thereby becoming the face of Hollywood and AIDS.

Between the late '80s and early '90s, Elizabeth continued to visit Washington frequently. Intellectually, I knew her reality -- that her days were probably numbered, though we all retained a sliver of hope. But the middle school mind lives in the present moment. And in my own mind, Elizabeth was the super-cool grown-up friend who helped me study for my test on the Vikings; who watched and laughed with my family over Roseanne; who talked with me about boys and friends; and who I called right away after the 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. "Maybe we should move to the East Coast where they don't have earthquakes," she told me, not long before she died.

I have not publicly discussed my friend Elizabeth Glaser since 1996, when I told this story from the Great Crossing of the Washington National Cathedral during my senior year in high school. In the ensuing years, I've thought of her -- and missed her -- often.

So here I am today, 19 years later. A guest listening to MOM+SOCIAL a one-day summit sponsored by the UN Foundation, Johnson & Johnson and The Huffington Post. The focus is motherhood and the role of social media, technology, and philanthropy to improve the health of mothers and children around the world. Fifty-plus speakers at 92YTribeca inspired and motivated a live audience, livestream video viewers and the Twittersphere (#globalmom) on issues from prenatal health to the empowerment of adolescent girls.

And it turns out that one of the first speakers at today's event was Fortunata Kasege, an Ambassador for what is now called the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, an organization, now in its third decade, that inspired a movement that has resulted in the virtual elimination of pediatric AIDS in the U.S. and Europe, and now works primarily in Africa towards the same goals.

Sixteen years ago, Kasege was a young, newly-married Tanzanian woman who came to Houston to fulfill a longstanding dream of studying journalism. Five months pregnant, she visited a clinic to receive the routine prenatal care that was unavailable in Tanzania. A blood test revealed the shock of her life: that she was HIV positive. No doubt thanks, at least in part, to the pioneering work of the EGPAF, where she now works, Kasege received anti-retroviral treatment in the U.S. throughout her pregnancy. Several months later, her daughter, Florida, now 16, was born HIV-free.

"Life can send you down difficult pathways," Kasege said. "It's how we deal with these situations that defines us." After her daughter was born, Kasege dedicated her life to fighting pediatric AIDS and eliminating the stigma and discrimination that still exists for the 900 children a day still born with HIV. "I want to stand up for people for whom hope is hard to find," Kasege said. Elizabeth would have been proud.

Shortly after Kasege spoke, we heard from Robbie Parker, father of Newtown, CT shooting victim Emilie Parker, who has dedicated his life to spreading compassion and remembering Emilie's legacy. Still fresh from the loss of his daughter, Parker reminded us today that, "Despite everything we as parents do, sometimes it's not enough. Despite wanting to be everything you can for your child, you cannot always protect them."

Kasege had the fortitude and good fortune to protect her daughter, if not herself. Elizabeth Glaser, Robbie Parker, and those of us who have suffered when it comes to the health and safety of our children did not. Neither, as I was reminded today, do the millions of parents around the world who lack access to basic solutions like prenatal healthcare, vaccinations, and cooking equipment that will allow them prepare a family meal in a timely and safe manner.

What I find so inspiring is someone like Parker, who despite his own tragedy, is out there connecting with people and reminding parents to savor every moment with their children. Someone like Kasege, an HIV survivor herself who works on a daily basis to help women around the world who need HIV prevention services get it. Someone like Saba Ismail, who after suffering terrible bullying as a girl, co-founded -- at the age of 15 -- Aware Girls, a Peshawar-based NGO which works to empower women through training and advocacy.

Life can be terribly unfair. But there are so many people out there, dozens of whom I heard from today, who are doing something to make the world a better place -- for children, for mothers, and by extension, for all of us. The organizations featured today are doing their part to further enable -- in the words of Carolyn Miles, the President & CEO of Save the Children -- "every mother's fierce determination to do everything in her power to make sure her children have every opportunity possible."

As a mother to a beautiful, perfect-in-my-eyes, 3-year-old boy, I left MOM+Social today thankful for the basic opportunities I am able to give him; fiercely determined to help him become a conscious, compassionate young man; and inspired by the people I heard from who are making their own children proud with their incredible good works.

With Mother's Day on Sunday, I'm also grateful for my own mother, who, in an atmosphere of love, provided me with every opportunity possible -- an unparalleled education, an expansive view of the world, and the chance to have someone like Elizabeth Glaser in my life.