Today marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who contracted HIV from a blood treatment for hemophilia. Ryan was diagnosed in December 1984, and given six months to live. At the time, AIDS was a disease widely associated with the gay community. Doctors said Ryan posed no risk to other students, but because AIDS was poorly understood at the time, he ended up at the center of a battle to keep him from going back to his school. The media coverage of the case made Ryan a national celebrity and spokesman for AIDS research and public education.
Ryan’s quiet courage made him a hero of celebrities like Indiana native John Mellencamp, Greg Louganis and Elton John. Ryan’s fight lasted much longer than the six months doctors predicted he’d live. But in April 1990, one month before his high school graduation, Ryan’s health began to fail. At the same time that Farm Aid IV was being held in Indianapolis at the Hoosier Dome, word spread that Ryan was hospitalized and near death. Elton John, who had become a loyal friend to Ryan and his family, was in Indiana to support Ryan. He left Ryan’s bedside at the hospital briefly to perform at the Farm Aid concert. Before launching into “Candle in the Wind” John said, “This one’s for Ryan.” The audience swayed with their hands in the air. Ryan White died the next day at the age of 18.
A new book, The Quiet Hero: A Life of Ryan White, by Nelson Price, celebrates the life and legacy of Ryan White and we highly recommend it, whether you lived through that time and remember Ryan’s story or whether you are too young to know about Ryan. His courage to speak up is inspirational and changed the perception of the AIDS epidemic as exclusive to gay, minority, urban and poor people. His fight inspired the Ryan White Care Act in 1990, which guarantees access to health care for people with HIV or AIDS who otherwise can’t afford proper treatment.