The Endurance of Hope
Managing HIV and Cancer, Richard Brodsky Knows Life Is Not a Sprint but a Marathon
by Dann Dulin
Baby boomer Richard Brodsky thought he had a Father Knows Best family, a popular sitcom in the fifties about the Andersens —the perfect American family. He and his wife, Jodi, lived on Long Island with their three adorable daughters. Brodsky made a good living running his own architectural firm. Then…it all changed.
In 1997, after seventeen years of marriage, Richard was diagnosed with HIV, the consequence of engaging in sex with a man who was positive. Richard was duty-bound to tell Jodi, but he would also be admitting not only his unfaithfulness but also his bisexuality. “It was the worst day of my life,” he remembers. But his wife forgave him. “We will work it out together,” she assured him. Since that fateful day, they have faced many challenging times and have been a team for thirty-seven years!
Richard and Jodi’s life took another harrowing turn when he was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer (Oligodendroglioma) in 2002. After numerous doctors advised him to undergo a chemo and radiation regimen, brain oncologist, Dr. Casilda Balmaceda, said, “I would not put you on chemo if you were my own brother.” He took Dr. Balmaceda’s advice.
Richard’s Rx was simple: eliminate stress, eat healthy, exercise, volunteer, do something you are passionate about, and get rid of the negative people in your life. That same year, he wrote a book, Jodi, The Greatest Love Story Ever Told, and in 2003, he formed the Richard M. Brodsky Foundation. The Foundation’s mission is to provide food and shelter for orphans in Kenya and to raise money for research to find an HIV cure and a vaccine. The Foundation also seeks to raise AIDS awareness and end the stigma attached to the illness.
Brodsky stays vigorous and vital by running marathons, including the Jerusalem Marathon, the Nova Scotia Marathon, and the New York Marathon. His Foundation sponsors annual marathons: the 5K AIDS Cancer Run Walk in Baldwin Park, Long Island, New York, and the World AIDS Marathon in Kisumu, Kenya that is held on World AIDS Day. Since 2006, Richard has sponsored twenty-five dinner dances for nearly 8,000 Kenyan orphans and since 2011, has provided medical care, oftentimes lifesaving, for more than a thousand Kenyan orphans.
In December of last year, Retrofestivals, a group of local bands, sponsored a benefit concert for Richard’s Foundation. In March 2016, Great Neck North High School Co-ed Faculty Basketball Game’s revenue went toward the Foundation.
When Richard runs, he usually wears a T-shirt that sports the words on front, “HIV+ Brain Cancer Survivor.” He’s often compared to Woody Allen in appearance, which Richard takes as a compliment.
Dann Dulin: Why did you become so intensely involved with dispelling HIV stigma?
Richard Brodsky: After I told my daughters, who accepted it very well, they did not want their friends to know that their dad was HIV-positive. Even today, two of my kids have spouses whose families prefer I not mention that I’m HIV-positive.
My doctors care for more people living with HIV than any other medical practice on Long Island. The doctors have a Client Advisory Board. The group consists of twenty-five people who meet once a month. The people who attend are more upbeat than those who do not attend. Yet even within the group, there’s only one other person who is comfortable about fully disclosing her HIV-status. Many people refuse to have a Facebook page and some of the people who are on Facebook say they do not care if other people know their status. At the same time, they ask me not to post anything on their wall about HIV!
There are so many people who are talented and creative and are living with HIV. Yet they’re fearful about disclosing their HIV status.
What feelings did you experience after your diagnosis?
I wished that I could be run over by a truck! The walk back to my office where my wife, who was helping me for the summer, was only five minutes but it seemed like hours. We had the perfect family. Both of us were accomplished marathon runners, had a successful architecture practice, and Jodi and I had three great kids.
I recall telling her that if she did not want me to come home with her that night, I would understand. She never considered that. I cried a lot. We were relieved that the kids would be at summer camp for another week so we could collect our thoughts and seek the best medical advice. We both knew our lives would never be the same.
How did your daughters handle your diagnosis?
We tried to keep it a secret, and considered informing the children after our last daughter was married. But each found out at different times in different ways. I had run my fastest marathon fifteen months after being diagnosed and they seemed to understand that HIV was not taking a toll on my health. Being unfaithful to their mother was what really hurt them.
Where does all your upbeat positive energy come from?
I have more important things to worry about than being HIV-positive. If I were to obsess about anything, it would be my brain cancer. I just don’t have time to worry about my illnesses. After all, at age sixty-five, eight of my last ten marathons have been my fastest since my cancer diagnosis.
Like everyone else you, I experience a lot of pain running a marathon, but I don’t quit because I know I’m blessed to be alive and to feel pain. Quitting is not an option. My mission is to raise awareness of people living with HIV and cancer. Never give up! I want to prove that people living with a so-called fatal illness stand a much better chance of leading a productive life if we have access to doctors and medicine. Thankfully, my wife Jodi shares this passion for running and activism. It makes our life so much more purposeful.
What HIV drugs are you currently taking?
I’ve been taking Viracept and Combivir since 1997.
My infectious disease doctor, Dr. Joseph McGowan, encouraged me to stop taking Combivir in 2015. I really did not want to make any changes because the meds I was taking since 1997 were working and I was running faster for several consecutive marathons. Dr. McGowan and I discussed how my joints were frequently getting injured and he noticed that my red blood cell count was low. I was not anemic but he suggested [that] if I switched to Truvada, my endurance would improve. That’s all I needed to hear. Since December 2015, I switched from Combivir to Truvada and my endurance has improved.
Typically, there used to be a four-minute spread from my fastest to slowest mile while running a marathon. For my last few marathons there has only been a two-minute spread.
What is your weekly regimen? Do you do any other exercise as well?
I run about thirty to thirty-five miles per week. I used to do Bikram Yoga but then I joined a local gym. I’m afraid my Foundation keeps me too busy and so I gave up my membership. Now I exercise at home.
How did you get started running?
I ran my first marathon in my late twenties with my wife Jodi and finished in about 04:25. I did not break four hours until my early forties.
Jodi and I have a passion for running marathons. In fact, our first date was a run in Memorial Park in Houston. Three months later we were engaged. Running saved my life and I want to share this with others, especially those living with HIV and cancer.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Thanks to everyone who has given me thumbs up, a touch on my shoulder, or just a thank you for running a marathon. No one has ever said a harsh word to me, while hundreds of people have had positive wishes. It’s not a question whether the glass is half full or half empty. It’s overflowing.
Richard, please tell me what your major concern is right now?
Where I can store five pallets of toys being donated to the Richard M. Brodsky Foundation from New York City’s largest Toy Fair and whose car I can borrow to pick up a six-foot teddy bear.
For more information, log on to his website: www.richardmbrodsky.org.
Dann Dulin interviewed Ruth Coker Burks for the December 2017 issue.