Living With HIV

Diagnosed with HIV at 24, Betsy Hill Samuel found greater purpose and is having the time of her life.

by Bobby Davis ’82 | photo by John Waire

Betsy Hill Samuel poses with her son Carter.

After graduating, Betsy Hill Samuel ’90 married her boyfriend, Tim, and began her career working in the financial services industry. She was young, healthy, and focused on building her new life when her husband was hospitalized with what turned out to be pneumocystis pneumonia.

He had tested positive for HIV. He called her at work, crying, and told her that she needed to get tested right away.

“I remember getting up from my desk and going to sit on the women’s restroom floor,” Samuel says. “I was 24 and thought I’d be dead by 30.”

This was 1992, soon after Magic Johnson went public with his revelation that he was HIV-positive. That was a groundbreaking announcement because HIV was then mostly seen as a virus only gay people contracted. It was also seen as a death sentence.

“All I could think about was HIV and that I was going to die. I remember wondering if there would ever be a time where I’d think about anything else,” she says. “The disease and the associated stigma were overwhelming. Queen’s Freddie Mercury announced that he had AIDS the day before he died; people were too afraid to admit they had it until it was near the end.”

One person she knew she’d have to tell was her mentor and boss at the time, Tom Bennion, then president of Honor ATM Network. When she told him, he responded that she should tell her co-workers, because “if they find out and you’ve hidden that from them, it’s going to seem shameful.”

After discussing her reservations with him, she agreed to let him tell her co-workers while she took a week off. When she returned to the office, people came by her desk to offer support. One offered to share what her boss had told them: “He took us into the conference room and said, ‘Betsy has HIV. If you treat her any differently, you’re fired.’ ”

“I had the 1992 equivalency of leprosy, and this man made work a safe place for me. I stayed there for 22 years, through merger after merger. His support of me got me to where I was going to be,” she recalls.

Samuel’s career progressed with Honor, which ultimately became First Data. She was promoted to senior vice president of merchant retention, managing $120 million in annual revenue and numerous multimillion-dollar accounts.

In 1999, Samuel and Tim decided to adopt three sisters from the foster care system. It took three years, and she and Tim became the first HIV-positive people in Florida to become adoptive parents. They later divorced for reasons unrelated to the virus. Tim passed away in 2008, and the sisters are now in their 20s and live in Florida.

She met her second husband, Joe Samuel, at work. They married in 2007 and moved to Colorado the next year, where their son, Carter, was born.

“I had written off the possibility of [bearing] children, but then found it was a real option,” Samuel says. She met with a faculty member at Northwestern University who said that if she switched up her meds and managed her HIV well, the rate of transmission to the child would be less than 2 percent. They would need the help of a fertility specialist, and found a doctor in Winter Park who helped them become pregnant.

“After that, my care followed the standard protocol for HIV-positive moms,” she says. “For example, when the baby is born, the mom is given AZT intravenously once she goes into labor. Carter received AZT for the first six weeks of his life. He was declared HIV-negative at age 1 after repeated testing.”

Last year, Samuel decided to leave the corporate world to 
focus on her family. 

“I had an epiphany about my life and work balance, and I realized that I needed to make the most of my son’s childhood. I was very fortunate to be able to make that choice; and I don’t regret leaving my career for a minute,” she says.

For half her life now, Samuel has built a successful career and family life with the specter of AIDS looming over her shoulder, yet she possesses remarkable equanimity about it. Indeed, she views it as a cosmic wake-up call. 

“Not only can I not imagine my life without HIV, but in some ways my life is better because of it. I appreciate things so much more. I see my son playing and having fun, and I think, ‘Oh my God, how was I able to have that kid?’ What a miracle. If I had given up, I wouldn’t be looking at this 6-year-old or have met 
my wonderful husband,” she says. “If I die in a few years or in 
30 years, I’ll have no regrets.”