INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — All he wanted to do was go to school, but leaders denied him igniting a battle that grabbed the world’s attention.
Ryan White was just 13-years-old when he was diagnosed with AIDS after a blood transfusion as part of a hemophilia treatment. He was given only a few months to live.
“The longer he lived the more famous he became because of the more he accomplished,” his mom Jeanne White-Ginder recalled during an interview on the 30th anniversary of his passing.
Ryan passed away on April 8, 1990 at just 18 years old.
“When he was first diagnosed and we knew he was only supposed to live 3 to 6 months, Ryan and I every night would thank the Lord for another day,” she explained.
Ryan lived for five years after the diagnosis and eventually became well enough in that time to return to Western Middle School in Russiaville. The Howard County school refused to let him return because he had AIDS. At that time in the 1980’s knowledge was low; fear was high.
“I wanted to go to school and be like everyone else because it’s no fun sitting at home,” Ryan said in a previous WTHR interview.
A series of court hearings eventually let him return to school and the family moved to Cicero where he attended Hamilton Heights High School.
“People were scared, people didn’t want to listen to the medical facts and I think it’s the same way here with COVID-19. I think we’re running scared and we don’t know all the answers and we must listen to the medical experts. I think that’s the similarities — people not wanting to listen to the medical experts,” White-Ginder explained.
“Kind of like with COVID-19, Ryan was on a respirator for about seven days and just having to deal with that it was just so horrific and my heart goes out to all the people who are facing it,” she continued.
It is yet another disease that’s impacted her personally.
“I have a doctor friend who was exposed and is not doing real well right now and I just remember those days and how horrible and painful those days were.”
She praises Dr. Anthony Fauci who is among those leading the fight of COVID-19. He’s also advised six U. S. Presidents about HIV-AIDS.
“I love the man — he has been the most honest,” she said with a smile.
Smiles are understandably tough for her on this 30th anniversary of Ryan’s death.
“It’s always a very emotional day for me. I love seeing on Facebook all the memorials and hearing from people who knew Ryan. I’m more fortunate than most people because I can talk about Ryan and people want to listen whereas a lot of people don’t have that privilege of when someone passes away of sharing experiences because it brings up so much sadness, but with me going to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis it is kind of therapy for me because I get to share Ryan’s story,” she explained.
Two years after Ryan passed away she moved out of state and reached out to the museum to see if they’d be interested in some of his items.
“It was a mother’s dream I tell you! I had no idea what to expect; I just didn’t want to pack it away because I knew it would never be the same and so for them to say we want it all, we want to tell Ryan’s story, we want to educate people about bullying I think is what Ryan would have wanted.”
His legacy also includes the Ryan White CARE Act which was passed in August of 1990. It has paved the way for new research and treatments for people living with HIV-AIDS.
A book about his life was also required reading in classrooms in Japan.
“It puts a smile on your face, but at the same time it’s just so very sad to remember those days,” White-Gender said.
To say those days were a whirlwind is an understatement. Ryan faced lawyers, judges, a new student body, testified in front of Congress, was featured in a movie about his life starring Judith Light, and befriended celebrities.
Michael Jackson bought him a car. Donald Trump flew with Jackson to be with the White family when Ryan passed. Then there’s Elton John.
“From going to look at caskets to picking a church, Elton did all of that and there wasn’t a want or a need at the hospital that Elton didn’t try to take care of,” she recalled. They continue to share a close friendship.
Jeanne returns to Indiana often to speak at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. It’s therapeutic for her and she says it also honors Ryan’s legacy of educating others.
“No matter how upset I was at everybody and people and the things people we’re saying, he was always turning the other cheek and saying mom, that’s why we have to educate people,” she recalled.