I watched, much like the majority of this state and nation on the evening news, Ryan White’s first day at Hamilton Heights Middle School. It was when this story of fear, misunderstanding, hate, and misinformation turned into a story of love, hope, compassion, and triumph all because of one amazing human spirit. It also proved that education, conversation, and compassion can prevail over fear and misinformation.
I recently spent a short amount of time with former Indiana Health Commissioner, Woody Myers, as he spoke about how he and his staff educated the Towns of Cicero, Atlanta, and Arcadia about the facts of HIV/AIDS. I couldn’t help but drift back in time to when I was watching this story unfold through daily newspaper articles and local TV news outlets. Ryan’s life was short but his impact was powerful then and now.
In brief, if you are unaware, Ryan contracted HIV in 1984 by being given contaminated blood while treating his hemophilia. I think it goes without saying but the world was a lot different in 1984. I was 5. To say the general public’s understanding of AIDS in 1984 was lacking might be the greatest understatement of the last 40 years.
Because of the lack of knowledge, awareness, and general understanding of what this virus was, how it was spread, who was at risk, etc. Compounding these worries and fears back then was the unwillingness of Public Officials to properly educate the public. Because of this, misinformation ruled the day and because of that people became terrified of this fatal disease. That fear and misinformation along with the severity of HIV/AIDS lead to a panic and added unneeded stress to those suffering during the AIDS Epidemic.
When people are scared we tend to panic. When we are scared sometimes we act and say irrational things. Even worse, sometimes when we are scared, people can do regrettable things. As a result of what I would imagine was intense fear the city of Kokomo, the school corporation, and some in the community shunned Ryan and his family. It got so bad that one terrifying evening someone fired shots into their home.
For every action,
There is an equal and opposite reactionNewton’s Third Law of Relativity
Now. I usually agree with all Sir Issac Newton’s Laws of Relativity. Except when you are dealing with human emotions. But, there have been a few events in my life that the the reaction in terms of the human spirit have been greater than the action. Ryan White’s story is one of those situations.
Ryan, his mom, and this story captivated the world in the mid to late 80’s as the first non homosexual that many of us ever learned about that was living with AIDS. The fact that he lived in Indiana was a connection. But not as much as the simple fact that we were both kids. I remember thinking? AIDS?
How could a kid have gotten AIDS?I wasn’t alone in thinking that way
Therefore, the rest of his short life he spent educating the entire world, and even more importantly dispelling many of the myths associated with AIDS and HIV. I was 7 years old when I first heard about Ryan White in school. I was 8 years old, two and a half hours northeast watching, reading, and talking with everyone about the facts of story.
32 years ago tomorrowAugust, 31, 1987
My family and I huddled around the TV watching on the evening news as the town of Cicero didn’t just welcomed Ryan and his family but embraced him. I’ll never forget, in an almost made for TV moment, seeing that unknown girl run towards him and give him a hug. As the weeks turned into months I watched with the ease in which Ryan interacted with his peers. He was just a normal kid from Indiana wrapped up in an enormous moment in society.
Thanks to Dr. Woody Myers and his team at the Indiana Department of Health, I, along with all students in Indiana beginning in 1987, Hamilton Heights in particular, were not scared of Ryan. I didn’t really understand what was happening. I felt I had been taught as much as anyone at that time about what AIDS was, how you contracted it, and how it was spread. How could these adults not understand these simple truths and allow him to go to school?
As the weeks turned into months we all learned more and more about HIV and AIDS. Ryan’s life became an even bigger story as he became the face of AIDS education. A few short years later he died at the age of 18. He endured more in his short time on this planet than any of us should in a lifetime. Conversely, he impacted this state, nation, and world as I much as anyone I have known, learned about in school, or on my own.
The AIDS Epidemic was a horrible situation for all involved. But because of the grace in which Ryan White lived his life we all gained a better understanding of HIV and AIDS. As a contemporary of Ryan I would like to express my gratitude to him and his family. As a child I was always amazed at his poise, strength, and positive attitude in the face of such incredibly overwhelming circumstances. I hope we as a nation can continue to learn, remember, and teach future generations what Ryan taught us during his life. Not just about AIDS but as being people.
ConversationAre pillars to include in all of our lives
I leave you with some words from Ryan himself,