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May 31, 2007
Dawn Averitt Bridge
by James Wortman
Dawn Averitt Bridge founded The Well Project, an information resource and networking hub for women living with HIV, in 2001. Soon after, she gave birth to the first of two children, enduring a difficult period of medical uncertainty and general public closed-mindedness—not to mention her own concerns about what drug side effects might do to her baby. Two healthy kids and a highly successful website later, Averitt Bridge has big plans for the future. She sat down with POZ’s James Wortman.
James Wortman: I understand you have an anniversary coming up?
Dawn Averitt Bridge: June 28 is the 19th anniversary of my HIV diagnosis. I was diagnosed when I was 19, so I am at the point where I have been living as many years of my life with HIV as without. Which feels really enormous. And now I have two healthy kids and a minivan!
Getting diagnosed with HIV at 19 years old means that I’ve lived my entire adult life completely aware of my mortality. But that’s actually been an enormous strength. Because I had to learn at 19 how to live every day like my last and still plan for a future.
Wortman: How’s it going with the kids and the minivan?
Averitt Bridge: I’m trying to discover what it is to be an HIV-positive mom integrating into a small rural community with two kids about to be school-aged. Maddy is going to be 5 and is just a remarkable spirit, and Sophie is a fearless conqueror of all things at 3. We bought property several years ago in central Virginia and have been building a house with an organic farm at the bottom of the hill and horse pastures all around.
There are a lot of unique challenges. I had spent many years in silence, and then I became incredibly public and ran my mouth anywhere they would listen. And all of a sudden I had kids, and I was going “Wait a minute, now it’s not just about me anymore.” This means people are not going to want their kids to play with my kids on the playground, because they don’t know enough about HIV to know better.
Wortman: Where did you get the idea for The Well Project?
Averitt Bridge: In the late ‘90s, I hiked the Appalachian Trail and had time to think about where our challenges were in the HIV/AIDS arena. And for me, one of our biggest challenges was our inability to create a sense of community around women with HIV.
In order to normalize HIV disease in the eyes of the mainstream, more women have to be out and be public. And in order for that to happen, there needs to be a support network for women to feel like they have what it takes to be out there and visible.
I also saw a need for good, reliable treatment information people can understand. So I decided to build a tool for women and service providers, a central repository with information and access to resources and networks of people.
Wortman: What’s the benefit of women-focused HIV organizations?
Averitt Bridge: When people ask me, “Are you still here because of protease inhibitors?” I say I’m still here because I had access to information to make informed choices. When I was first diagnosed, my doctor didn’t tell me anything—I was the first woman he had ever diagnosed. He just said, “Don’t read anything, it’s too confusing. And don’t tell anyone.” So for several years, I felt like I was the only woman in the world with this.
I started WISE (Women’s Information Service and Exchange) in the early ‘90s because of that [experience]. Later, with The Well Project, it was about making that information digestible, accessible and available.
There are two pieces to this. We communicate information in a way that women seem to feel more comfortable with, and frankly, we’re happy for anyone to use that. This is not exclusive to women. But we also address issues that are specific to women that—because there isn’t a lot of research or because there hasn’t been a lot of focus—are frequently not addressed in other types of HIV press.
Averitt Bridge: It started off as a think tank meeting five years ago and has evolved into a year-round Well Project initiative working with the FDA on how they label drugs and how they advise the pharmaceutical industry about drug development plans. We look at labels and sometimes, in the label review process, [we’ll see it says] there’s no difference for men and women—but we don’t have any studies yet to say there’s no difference. And [very often] they’ve said, “You’re right, we need to go back and review some other things.”
Wortman: Any other organizations you want to create?
Averitt Bridge: For years, I’ve talked about starting a National HIV-Positive Soccer Moms Association, which of course makes everybody go, “Huh!?” But it’s great, because it shakes them up, and they go, “Are there really enough positive moms out there?” And I’m like, “Well, in 2003, 7,000 HIV-positive women gave birth to children, and all those kids are just about to be in the Junior League.”
Until we normalize HIV disease a little bit more, there aren’t going to be a bunch of people standing in line to sign up for the National HIV-Positive Soccer Moms Association. But it is a very illustrative way for people to understand that there aren’t just a handful of us out there.
Woman of the Month is supported by exclusive advertising from Gilead.