He became the public face of AIDS in the 1980s when he became a victim of the disease as a result of a blood transfusion at just 13 years old. He became the number one activist as he fought to be permitted to return to school and, in the process, educated a nation.
Ryan White was an Indiana teenager who was healthy most of his young life with the exception of hemophilia. HIV was discovered in the course of a partial lung removal surgery which was necessary due to pneumonia. After his HIV diagnosis, he appeared on television shows and magazine covers as he struggled to make people understand that he did not pose a danger to them.
In an effort to remove the stigma of the disease, White appeared frequently with celebrities such as Elton John, Michael Jackson, John Cougar Mellencamp, President and Mrs. Reagan, Coach Bobby Knight, NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Phil Donahue and many others. His crush, Alyssa Milano, gave him a kiss during one of his appearances on Phil Donahue's talk show.
We owe it to Ryan to make sure that the fear and ignorance that chased him from his home and his school will be eliminated. We owe it to Ryan to be compassionate, caring and tolerant toward those with AIDS, their families and friends. It's the disease that's frightening, not the people who have it. - Ronald Reagan
Elton John helped the family purchase a new home and Michael Jackson bought White a red Mustang Convertible. Jackson didn't stop there. Along with befriending the boy and his family, he took them on vacations.
White spoke to President Reagan's AIDS Commission in 1988 to describe the discrimination he faced following his diagnosis when AIDS was still misunderstood. He stated that due to public education, he was welcome in the town of Cicero where Elton John had helped them to relocate.
While White lived five years longer than doctors had predicted, he died at the age of 18 just shy of graduation.
More than 1,500 people attended White's funeral and his pallbearers included Elton John, football star Howie Long and Phil Donahue. Elton John performed at the funeral which was also attended by Michael Jackson and First Lady Barbara Bush.
In a written statement which appeared in the Washington Post, President Ronald Reagan stated, "We owe it to Ryan to make sure that the fear and ignorance that chased him from his home and his school will be eliminated. We owe it to Ryan to open our hearts and our minds to those with AIDS. We owe it to Ryan to be compassionate, caring and tolerant toward those with AIDS, their families and friends. It's the disease that's frightening, not the people who have it."
Michael Jackson wrote a poem, song and produced a video about White called "Gone too Soon."
White did not live long enough to witness Congress pass the AIDS bill that bears his name – The Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act or CARE. In 2006, it was renamed the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program. President Barack Obama reauthorized it in October.
The Ryan White program works with cities, states and community-based organizations services to more than half a million people each year. The majority of the fund supports primary medical care and essential support services as well as technical assistance, training and research.
White's mother, Jeanne White-Ginder stood by her son throughout his struggle and continues to be a strong activist. While talking with visitors at the Indianapolis Children's Museum July 8 about Michael Jackson, she said Jackson's efforts mean even more now that he has died as well.
“The work showed that Michael did not ever plan on forgetting Ryan and now we plan on never forgetting Michael,” said White-Ginder.
While there were many early famous faces of AIDS including Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson, Freddie Mercury and others, White made the largest impact and his inspiration continues today.
Numerous charities formed around his death including the Elton John AIDS Foundation, the Ryan White Foundation (merged with AIDS Action in 2000), The Indiana University Dance Marathon which raises money for the Riley Hospital for Children and The Ryan White Infectious Disease Clinic at the hospital and many others.
He inspired artists who dedicated songs and entire albums in his memory and The Children's Museum of Indianapolis opened an exhibit called "The Power of Children: Making a Difference" which featured White along with Anne Frank and Ruby Bridges.
As we observe World AIDS Day on December 1, I can't help but wonder if we would have come as far as we have in the elimination of discrimination, research and treatment if it were not for the courage of Ryan White. He was a common teenager who would not stop fighting and, through others, continues to fight today – he's common no more.
In memory of Vic