This morning, a stroll down memory lane of sorts. A step back in time to a place where I felt more fulfilled than I have, any other time in my life. Sir Elton John has always had that effect on me.
While catching up on some of my Elton John reading, I saw this headline:
CHILDREN FORCED TO WEAR RED BADGES TO DENOTE THEIR HIV POSITIVE STATUS
Then I saw this photo:
Everything Happens for a Reason
In that instant, I felt my heart break. You see, back in 1988 I began working for Boehringer Mannheim in Indianapolis, IN. The department I worked in dealt with research in sexually transmitted diseases and drugs of abuse. Little did I know, that job would lay the very foundation for a future that would change me forever.
I read everything I could get my hands on. I was fascinated by both topics, but sexually transmitted diseases grabbed my attention like no subject ever had.
The Day I Met Ryan White
I think it was the winter of 1988 – 1989 when I went to a local carwash after work. It was a beautiful day and the lines were long – people were anxious to rinse the salty residue from their vehicles. This particular carwash was one where customers would drop their car off, walk in the front of the building, watch their car move through the cleaning cycles with a quick detail job at the end. While inside, watching my car, I noticed a kid standing next to me. There was something very sad about the frail looking boy. I felt like I should know him, but couldn’t put my finger on how I should. When I saw the bright red mustang, two cars ahead of mine – it clicked. The boys I was standing next to was Ryan White. That Mustang was the one Michael Jackson had bought for him.
Once I realized who the boy was, the sadness I sensed became painfully clear. The people working at that carwash knew who the customer was – recognized that Mustang and acted as though they could contract AIDS just by touching his car. I knew I had to do something – something to let the gawkers know I was not afraid of him and that they shouldn’t be either.
Doing the Right Thing
I walked over to Ryan, asked if he was who I thought he was – he dropped his head with a slight nod. I asked him if that was the famous red Mustang I’ve heard so much about – he responded, slightly more upbeat. I went on to tell him how much he inspired me to learn as much as I could, in my line of work and that I knew enough to know that I wanted to hug him if he would allow me to. After I hugged him, I stuck close by him as our cars went down the line. When his car was nearing completion, I walked with him to the pickup point. We got a few strange looks, but I told him what a pleasure it was to meet him and that he was an amazing person with a really sharp car! He smiled, I hugged him again and watched him drive away.
Who Was Ryan White?
Ryan White was a fellow Hoosier that contracted HIV through a blood transfusion at a very young age. Ryan was treated horribly by an ignorant world, but he would make his mark in a very big way. In 1988, Ryan spoke before the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic. White spoke of the discrimination he endured when he first tried to return to school. How proper education and awareness had made him more welcome in the town of Cicero than he had been in his hometown of Kokomo. White told of his experiences in both Kokomo and Cicero in effort to reveal the power and importance of AIDS education.
Ryan would continue his fight to educate and encourage education until he passed away on April 8, 1990. I remember driving by the church where his funeral was held, knowing his supporters were attending. I had never seen so many cars in one place. I stopped along side the road to sit in silence and pray. I prayed that Ryan’s legacy would continue and that his life, as difficult as it had been, would inspire change in an extremely ignorant world.
Be the Change
Little did I know, the encounter I had with Ryan and my career at Boehringer would be the beginning of a life where I would become an outspoken advocate and educator for sexually transmitted diseases.