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Who Was Ryan White?

Ryan White smiling.

Ryan White was 13 when he was diagnosed with AIDS after a blood transfusion in December 1984. Living in Kokomo, Indiana, doctors gave him six months to live. 

When Ryan tried to return to school, he faced AIDS-related discrimination in his Indiana community. Along with his mother Jeanne White Ginder, he rallied for his right to attend school. He gained national attention and became the face of public education about the disease.

Surprising his doctors, Ryan lived five years longer than expected. He died in April 1990, one month before his high school graduation. Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act in August 1990.

Listen to audio of Ryan White’s mom

Ryan’s mom, Jeanne White Ginder, recounts the early years of struggle, pain, and triumph.

How Could He Have AIDS?

Ryan White with his mother and they are dressed up.

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Transcription of Audio:

Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS on December 17, 1984. He was one of the first children—one of the first hemophiliacs—to come down with AIDS, and it was definitely a time when there was no education and there was hardly any information on AIDS at the time.

So I was living in Kokomo, Indiana, and Ryan was attending Western Middle School, and it was something that I really didn't even believe he had. I felt like, "How could he have AIDS?" He was a hemophiliac since birth, and I just felt like "How could he be one of the first ones?" I felt like somehow, in some way, it was going to be something else. I really never really believed he had AIDS for quite a while.

At that time, of course, he had no precautions or anything. There were no precautions at the hospital. And all of a sudden the CDC shows up and the CDC started putting in all kinds of precautions, you know: the gowns, the gloves, the masks, and so forth, and started talking to the nurses and so forth. It became apparent just like overnight that all of a sudden things were different.

Mom, I Want to Go to School

Ryan White and his friends outdoors.

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Transcription of audio:

Ryan really became famous because of his fight to go to school. When Ryan was diagnosed, they only gave him three to six months to live. So at that time, I thought every cough, every fever, I worried that it was going to be his last. And I really never thought he'd be healthy enough to go to school.

But as he started getting healthy, as he started gaining weight, he started to ask, "Mom," he said, "I want to go to school. I want to go visit my friends. I want to see my friends." So I really kind of put him off for a while and finally he just said, "Mom, I want to go to school. I want to go visit."

So it was a long process. We had to go through almost a year and a half, he didn't go to school for about a year and a half. He was worried about taking the seventh grade over again, and he didn't want people to think he was dumb, because he was a very smart and intelligent kid. So it was a long process. Through court hearings, we thought it would take one court hearing, and we'd have all these medical experts in so to speak, and then everybody would be educated, but it didn't happen that way.

It was really bad. People were really cruel, people said that he had to be gay, that he had to have done something bad or wrong, or he wouldn't have had it. It was God's punishment, we heard the "God's punishment" a lot. That somehow, someway he had done something he shouldn't have done or he wouldn't have gotten AIDS.

Mom, You Don't Get It

Ryan White standing infront of his new car.

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Transcription of audio:

Then we moved to Cicero, Indiana, and there the community welcomed us. And it was all because of a young girl, named Jill Stuart, who was president of the student body, who decided to bring in the medical experts and talk to the kids, and the kids went home then and educated their parents.

So Ryan was welcome. He got to go to school. He got to go to proms and dances. He even got a job. It was kind of funny, he came home once after he turned 16 and told me he had a job for the summer. I thought, "Oh my gosh. Who is going to hire you, knowing who you are?" I said, "What are you going to be doing," and he said, "I'm working at Maui's Skateboard shop." I said, "Really? What are you going to be doing?" and he said, "I'm going to put together skateboards." And I said, "How much are you getting paid?" and he said "$3.50 an hour." I said, "Ryan, that won't even buy your gas to Indianapolis and back." He said, "Mom, you don't get it. I got a job just like everybody else does." So it was really important for Ryan, to just be one of the other kids, and to try and fit in. He never bragged or anything about who he was, or what he got to do, he just wanted to be around his friends.

He Was My Son

Ryan White reading a comic book with his cat on his bedroom floor. Play audio

Transcription of audio:

Well a lot of people will say, "Your son was such a hero" and all that. But to me, he was my son. And you know, sometimes it's so confusing because he was my little boy, and to share him with everybody, because he wasn't perfect, but at the same time, he was my son.


His Legacy Would Be

Bill Clinton signing the Ryan White Care Act while White's mother looks on.

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Transcription of audio:

At the time when Ryan was diagnosed with AIDS, I mean, we heard of so many drugs coming out, and none of them was worth nothing. By the time you heard of one, there would be another one out, and you would never get the research for one. And none of them worked. And so even in the early 90s, when I was hearing there was hope, I kind of thought, "You know, we had that hope, too, but they didn't pan out."

But they did pan out! The biggest contribution I think that Ryan made is—and I didn't know it at that time—that his legacy would be that people are getting their drugs and their treatment and that people are living with AIDS.

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