Teen injected with HIV as a baby now advocate for others

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BETSY TAYLOR
Associated Press Writer
(AP Photo Jeff Roberson)

ST. CHARLES, Missouri (AP) — Brryan Jackson has been left out of birthday party invitations and asked not to use water fountains. His daily routine at one point included 23 pills, three IV medications and two injections. But the toughest part of growing up with AIDS for him may be knowing how he got it.

When he was a baby, his father entered his hospital room and injected a syringe of HIV-tainted blood into his tiny body. At times during his childhood, he was expected to die.
Now 18, he’ll put on his black cap and gown Saturday and graduate from Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, near St. Louis. Shielded from the public for much of his life since his father’s high-profile criminal trial a decade ago, Brryan is now an outspoken advocate for people with AIDS, and the power of faith and forgiveness.

“I expect to break the barriers between what people think this virus is, and what it really is,” Brryan said Thursday during an interview at his home. “I hope to eliminate a lot of ignorance and change people’s minds.”

Brryan’s mother, Jennifer Jackson, and his father, Brian Stewart, were together for about two years, off and on, in the early 1990s. After Jackson became pregnant and had the child, Stewart denied he was the father. Paternity tests proved he was.

In 1992, Brryan was 11 months old when he was hospitalized with asthma. After leaving the hospital, he was constantly sick. Doctors ruled out one illness after another.

Finally, in 1996, the child was near death when he was diagnosed with AIDS. But doctors were puzzled about how he got the disease. He wasn’t born with it, and had not had blood transfusions. That’s when suspicion turned to Stewart.

Stewart worked at a St. Louis hospital as a phlebotomist — his job was drawing blood from patients. Brryan’s mother said Stewart came to Brryan’s hospital room during that 1992 stay and suggested she go get a bite to eat.

Prosecutors said he had a syringe filled with HIV-tainted blood tucked inside his lab coat. They said he waited until he was alone with the boy and injected him.

There were no witnesses, but at trial in 1998, Jackson and others testified that Stewart had access to tainted blood and previously had threatened to use it as a weapon.
The defense contended the boy could have been infected other ways, perhaps from a medical procedure. But prosecutors argued that Stewart wanted the family out of his life, and didn’t want to pay child support.

Stewart was convicted of first-degree assault and received the maximum sentence, life in prison. At sentencing, Judge Ellsworth Cundiff said he was in the same category as “the worst war criminal.”

To distance himself from his father — and to protect his identity growing up — Brryan changed his name from “Brian.” He has not been in contact with Stewart but said he has forgiven him.

“God wants us to forgive people,” he said. “Am I going to make myself as low as he is? … I’ve got to be the better person.”

Stewart, now 42, remains in a Missouri prison and is eligible for parole in two years. He declined to be interviewed for this story and said he did not wish to have an attorney comment on his behalf.

In many ways, Brryan is a typical teen. He became a cheerleader after his sister dared him to try out for the squad; he’s learning how to play the guitar.

With improvements in AIDS treatment, he’s down to just five medications these days. He said at his last doctor’s visit, they didn’t draw blood because he has overall been in good health.

Still, he has missed long stretches of school battling AIDS and admits that some days, it’s hard to get out of bed.

As always, Brryan moves ahead. He plans to eventually go to college, and hopes one day to go into politics, but for the upcoming months, he’ll spend his time advocating for others with AIDS.

Brryan has started a nonprofit called Hope Is Vital. He will work this summer with Project Kindle, a California-based organization that sponsors summer camps for children affected by the disease. He also serves as a speaker with that group and a Missouri-based ministry.

Project Kindle’s founder, Eva Payne, said when Brryan first started attending Camp Kindle seven years ago, he was shy and frequently cried, but became more confident. When another girl broke down a few years ago, because she was having trouble talking about being HIV-positive, Brryan offered his support.

“He said he can be her voice, until she’s ready,” Payne recalled.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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