While the beginning of December brings with it the hustle and bustle of the holidays — stringing Christmas lights, baking cookies and finding that perfect gift — this time of year is also one of remembrance for me and my high school classmates.
Growing up in small-town Indiana was pretty much like you think it would be. Chasing lightning bugs in the summer and epic neighborhood snowball fights in the winter. The farmers in town all got together to lament the building of the reservoir that took up prime cropland – 30 years after its completion. And EVERYBODY in town gathered together for community holiday events.
My childhood was as Norman Rockwell-ian as it could be, considering it was the 1980s, until one day when my rural high school was thrust into the national spotlight.
That is when Ryan White became a student at Hamilton Heights High School.
Ryan came to Heights after he was kicked out of school in Russiaville, Indiana. He wasn’t a trouble maker. And he didn’t fail any of his classes. Ryan was kicked out of school because he was HIV positive.
It seems surreal for a student to be denied a public education because of his health status, but that’s what happened.
Ryan was born with the hereditary blood condition hemophilia. At the time, hemophilia was treated with frequent blood transfusions. Then in 1984, Ryan was diagnosed with AIDS. The lack of proper screening of blood donors and the medical community's lack of knowledge about the HIV virus were made horribly apparent by his diagnosis, as well as the numerous other hemophiliacs that contracted AIDS from 1979 to 1984.
Ryan tried returning to school after his diagnosis, but Western Middle School was not prepared to have him back. In fact, the school refused to allow Ryan to return. Despite assurances from the Centers for Disease Control and the Indiana State Health Department that White posed no risk to other students, the school refused to readmit him.
This kind of ignorant, mob mentality scares me and I am glad that I did not go to that school. I am very proud that I attended the school that looked beyond the fear and welcomed Ryan with open arms.
Ryan and his family moved to my hometown in 1987, where he attended school until his death in 1990.
The anniversary of his birth was on Thursday, and many of my former classmates posted memorials to Ryan on social media sites and links to stories about his life. I know his story has inspired others to fight for better public health education and research into finding a cure for HIV and AIDS. He is now in history books across the country and his mother continues to fight discrimination and for funding for proper diagnosis and treatment for all those with HIV/AIDS in Ryan's honor.
Thirty years later, his struggle with equality and prejudice continues to influence how I see others and the world around me. I’m glad that during my ordinary, small-town childhood, I got an up-close look at the complexities of modern society and how one young man helped to change public perception for everyone suffering from a disease no one asked for.
Each year one million people worldwide die from HIV. In the United States 1,122,900 people are living with HIV and one in seven people don’t know they are infected.
Ryan’s birthday also coincides with World AIDS Day, held on Dec. 1. This worldwide initiative was created in 1988 to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness.
The theme for World AIDS Day 2018 was “Know Your Status.” Stanislaus County Health Services Agency Public Health urges people to know their HIV infection status through testing and to access prevention, treatment and care services. There are over 700 people in Stanislaus County living with HIV. Public Health services include HIV testing so people can know their status, risk counseling, and referral for pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV infection.
For more information on HIV testing and services offered by the Health Services Agency, visit http://hsahealth.org/publicHealth/programs/pages/hIVSTDhepProgram.shtm
For more information about the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, visit http://hab.hrsa.gov/livinghistory/