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Originally published May 25, 2014 at 6:18 AM | Page modified May 27, 2014 at 2:52 PM

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For years, Julie Lewis has defied her death sentence

For Julie Lewis, a death sentence has turned into a fulfilling life raising three children, including pop-rap star and Macklemore collaborator, Ryan Lewis. Now she starting a charity to fight HIV in developing countries.


Seattle Times columnist

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If you are going to make numbers (surviving 30 years) the focus of the story, they need to make sense. If one sits... MORE
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Julie Lewis remembers every last detail. The moving box she was carrying, the phone call, the doctor on the line telling her, “You better sit down.”

You may have HIV, he told her. A blood transfusion Lewis received in 1984 hadn’t been tested for the virus; Washington state law didn’t require it until the following year. And the person who gave her the blood had AIDS.

So Lewis needed to be tested, along with her husband and three children, aged two, four and six.

Days later, Lewis was the only one found to be HIV positive — with three to five years to live.

“Do you have a living will?” the doctor asked her. “And are your things in order?’ And I’m 32. What 32-year-old has a living will?”

Thirty years since the fateful transfusion, Lewis, now 55, is alive and well. She and her husband, Scott, are grandparents to two baby boys.

And their son, Ryan, 26, is a Grammy-winning producer and multimillionaire, thanks to his partnership with longtime friend Ben Haggerty, also known as Macklemore.

To celebrate her survival, and to help others do the same, Lewis has launched the 30/30 Project, an effort to build 30 medical centers worldwide, and sustain them for 30 years.

Lewis has partnered with Construction for Change, a Seattle nonprofit that will construct the new medical facilities, starting with one in Malawi, where one in 10 adults have HIV or AIDS. Julie Lewis has worked for Construction for Change for the last three years.

Another agency, Partners in Health, will staff each center with health care providers.

The effort officially kicked off last month, when Ryan Lewis produced a video in which he spoke for the first time about his mother’s condition, and asked for help from his fans to fund the 30/30 Project. He directed them to an Indiegogo campaign that raised $160,000 — enough to build the Malawi clinic. (Four other projects — three in Kenya and one in Uganda — are waiting for funding.)

Julie Lewis, too, appeared in the video, speaking about her condition.

She has come a long way since 1990, when she didn’t tell anyone she was HIV positive.

“There were a lot of stories of discrimination and stigma, and we didn’t want our kids to take that on,” Lewis said. “At first I was just trying to get by day to day and then I pretty much decided to be best friends with denial. I didn’t know what to do with ‘three to five years.’

“When you don’t think you have a future, it’s really hard to make plans.”

A year after her diagnosis, NBA star Magic Johnson announced he, too, was HIV positive.

“I felt like he was one of my best friends,” she said of Johnson. “And if he can play in the NBA, then I can run around the block.”

She did that, and lifted weights, and started to feel better — well enough to talk about her condition with her children (Ryan was 6), then her friends. She signed up with an HIV/AIDS speaker’s bureau that sent her to schools and universities to speak about her condition.

“People still say, ‘You’re the AIDS lady,’ because I was the kid who came to my kids’ classes with the scary HIV story.”

Ryan now has a giant red ribbon tattooed on his arm.

But that was the only statement he’s ever made about it. Nothing, even with the platform he has with Haggerty.

“He is not the person who is the main spokesperson for his band,” Lewis said of her son. “Ben writes most of the lyrics, so most of their songs are Ben’s story. There really hasn’t been a time when Ryan could speak about it.”

But as the anniversary approached, “We thought we needed to do something special, something meaningful,” Julie Lewis said, adding that she and her husband weren’t waiting for their son to reach a certain level of celebrity or wealth before kicking off the project.

“I knew I wanted to do this,” she said.

As a result of the video launch, the Lewises have heard from all over: CEOs, Ellen DeGeneres, and Madonna’s people, who reached out about partnering.

The Broadway Cares nonprofit has agreed to sponsor a “pass the hat” for the 30/30 Project at performances of “Mothers & Sons” through mid-July.

If it all works out, 600,000 people will receive the kind of health care that saved Julie Lewis.

It’s the start of another dream — on the heel of a year that has shown them that dreams can be realized, and in a big way.

Their first daughter, Theresa Hillis, had a baby boy last year. Their second daughter, Laura, had a baby boy, too — and was part of the mass-wedding performed by Queen Latifah at the Grammy Awards, where they were in the audience.

“Queen Latifah married my daughter and Madonna sang at her wedding,” Lewis said with a laugh.

That same night, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis received Grammys for Best Rap Song (for “Thrift Shop”), Best New Artist, Best Rap Performance (for “Thrift Shop”) and Best Rap Album (for “The Heist”). They were nominated in three other categories, including Song of the Year for “Same Love.”

Julie Lewis never saw her son’s music interest as folly. He majored in the Comparative History of Ideas at the University of Washington, which tapped into the artistic interests he developed early on. He had a graphic design business in high-school, and connected with Haggerty — who used some of his beats ­— around that time.

Last year, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis played about 300 dates. Scott Lewis was able to sync his work travel to be with their son.

But both were there to see him play three nights at Madison Square Garden and three Seattle shows at KeyArena last December.

But the real highlight was on the last night of the tour, in Seattle. All of the families of the supporters came on stage.

“Ryan didn’t know, and he has sort of a platform where he is,” she said. “Scott had on a wig and a cape, and we did ‘Can’t Hold Us.’ The Haggertys were up there. Everyone was singing.

“All those songs were made in my basement.”

Nicole Brodeur: nbrodeur@seattletimes.com

Information in a web summary on this article, originally published May 25, 2014, was corrected May 26, 2014. The previous version of the summary incorrectly stated the year of Lewis’ diagnosis.



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