By Adrianna Pitrelli
ARCADIA, Ind. — With security and the press surrounding him, Ryan White walked through the halls of Hamilton Heights High School for his first day of school there 30 years ago, feeling loved, welcomed and a sense of normality for the first time in years.
“I’m just one of the kids, and all because the students at Hamilton Heights High School listened to the facts, educated their parents and themselves and believed in me,” Ryan said in an interview at the time.
Hamilton Heights Middle School students presenting a Ryan White mural.
Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStateHouseFile.com
At 13-years-old, Ryan came face to face with death after being diagnosed with hemophilia A. Hemophilia A is an inherited disorder where blood system does not clot normally. Ryan became infected with HIV after receiving an untested blood donation.
After being diagnosed with HIV, he was told he only had three to six more months to live. But Ryan lived 74 more months.
Ryan’s story was told by Sen. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, to members of the Hamilton Heights community Thursday for a celebration of the 30-year anniversary of White’s first day in the school system. Cook was the principal of Hamilton Heights High School at the time.
“Celebrating Ryan’s life is a learning and growing experience for the community and students,” Cook said.
The journey for Ryan to reach normality didn’t come easy. Before coming to Hamilton Heights, Ryan attended a middle school in Kokomo. But because his disease was so scarcely known about, teachers and parents feared Ryan would transmit HIV by every day contact, like using the public bathroom or shaking hands.
Today there is a better understanding of the virus, said Indiana Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams, who was recently confirmed as U.S. Surgeon General. People know how it is contracted and there are regimens which slow the progression. More than 12,000 Hoosiers currently live with HIV.
Eventually a lengthy court case let Ryan return to class in Kokomo, but he was made fun of and shunned by other students. On his first day back, 150 of the 300 students in his class didn’t show up. Vandals broke windows of his home and people slashed his mother’s tires.
Cook was contacted by a member of the community about Ryan’s experience and immediately he said he’d make a plan for Ryan to come to Hamilton Heights.
“I called the superintendent immediately and we set up a strategic plan for getting White to our school,” Cook said. “We laid out a plan and trained all staff and persuaded them not to worry.”
Cook then met with Ryan and his mother, Jeanne, to introduce himself and let them know that Hamilton Heights would be a safe place for Ryan to continue his education.
“I asked Ryan, ‘You’ve been very sick, why do you really want to come to school?’,” Cook said. “He quickly said, ‘Mr. Cook, do you know what it’s like to not go to a ball games in junior high? Do you know what it’s like to be able to participate in clubs? I don’t have a long life to live and I want to make friends and enjoy school as much as I can.”
With that, Cook knew he had to do anything he could to get Ryan to Hamilton Heights.
In 1987, the White family moved to Cicero where he started classes at Hamilton Heights High School. Cook welcomed him with a handshake and encouraged the other students to have civil discussion with Ryan about HIV.
“We offered counseling services and talked to all the kids beforehand so they knew what to expect,” Cook said. “The staff was trained on what to do if White got injured.”
White’s story went nationwide as HIV and AIDS was so misunderstood at the time. He had celebrities from President George Bush to Elton John supporting him through this time in his life.
Despite the negativity Ryan endured and the limelight that followed him, Cook said Ryan stayed positive throughout his time at Hamilton Heights High School.
“We did something in a young man’s life — gave him normalcy when he had none,” Cook said. “He was so pleased to have that experience.”
Just a few days before Ryan was to graduate high school, he died. But 30 years later, his legacy lives on.
“Ryan White taught the nation and world about HIV and AIDS, but he also taught us about acceptance and understanding,” Adams said. “That’s the legacy he left us and the most important one ever.”
Adrianna Pitrelli is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.