Early life and illness
Ryan White was born on December 6, 1971 at St. Joseph Memorial Hospital in Kokomo, Indiana his parents Hubert Wayne and Elaine White. While he was circumcised, the bleeding would not stop and he was three years old. The doctors diagnosed him with a severe hemophilia A, X chromosome, which causes even minor injuries to result in severe bleeding. For treatment, he received weekly infusions of factor VIII, a blood product created from pooled plasma of non-hemophiliacs, an increasingly common treatment for hemophiliacs at the time.
Healthy for most of his childhood, Ryan became extremely ill with pneumonia in December 1984. On December 17, 1984, during a lung biopsy, White was diagnosed with AIDS. Doctors predicted Ryan White had only six months to live.
After the diagnosis, White was too ill to return to school, but by early 1985 he began to feel better. His mother asked if he could return to school, but was told by school officials that he could not. On June 30, 1985, a formal request to permit re-admittance to school was denied by Western School Corporation superintendent James O. Smith, sparking an administrative appeal process that lasted for eight months.
Battle with schools
Western Middle School in Russiaville faced enormous pressure from many parents and faculty to prevent White from returning to the campus after his diagnosis became widely known. In the school of 360 total students, 117 parents and 50 teachers signed a petition encouraging school leaders to ban White from school. Due to the widespread fear and ignorance of AIDS, the principal and later the school board succumbed to this pressure and prohibited re-admittance. The White family filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the decision. The Whites initially filed suit in the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. The court, however, declined to hear the case until administrative appeals had been resolved. On November 25, an Indiana Department of Education officer ruled that the school must follow the Indiana Board of Health guidelines and that White must be allowed to attend school.
White attended Western Middle School for eighth grade during the 1985-1986 school year. He was deeply unhappy and had few friends. The school required him to eat with disposable utensils, use separate bathrooms, and waived his requirement to enroll in a gym class. Threats continued. When a bullet was fired through the White’s living room window (no one was home at the time), the family decided to leave Kokomo. After finishing the school year, his family moved to Cicero, Indiana, where he began ninth grade at Hamilton Heights High School, in Arcadia, Indiana. On August 31, 1986, a “very nervous” White was greeted by school principal Tony Cook, school system superintendent Bob G. Carnal, and a handful of students who had been educated about AIDS and were unafraid to shake Ryan’s hand.
The publicity of Ryan White’s story catapulted him into the national spotlight, amidst a growing wave of AIDS coverage in the news media. Between 1985 and 1987, the number of news stories about AIDS in the American media doubled. While isolated in middle school, White appeared frequently on national television and in newspapers to discuss his tribulations with the disease. Eventually, he became known as a poster child for the AIDS crisis, appearing in fundraising and educational campaigns for the syndrome. White participated in numerous public benefits for children with AIDS. Many celebrities appeared with him, starting during his trial and continuing for the rest of his life, to help publicly destigmatize socializing with people with AIDS. Singers John Mellencamp, Elton John and Michael Jackson, actor Matt Frewer, diver Greg Louganis, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan, Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight and basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar all befriended White. He also was a friend to many children with AIDS or other potentially debilitating conditions.
For the rest of his life, White appeared frequently on Phil Donahue’s talk show. His celebrity crush, Alyssa Milano of the then-popular TV show Who’s the Boss?, met White and gave him a friendship bracelet and a kiss. Elton John loaned Jeanne White $16,500 to put toward a down payment on the Cicero home, and rather than accept repayment, placed the repaid money into a college fund for White’s sister. In high school, White drove a red 1988 Ford Mustang GT, a gift from Michael Jackson. Despite the fame and donations, Ryan White stated that he disliked the public spotlight, loathed remarks that seemingly blamed his mother or his upbringing for his illness, and emphasized that he would be willing at any moment to trade his fame for freedom from the disease.
In 1988, Ryan White spoke before the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic. Ryan White told the commission of the discrimination he had faced when he first tried to return to school, but how education about the disease had made him welcome in the town of Cicero. Ryan White emphasized his differing experiences in Kokomo and Cicero as an example of the power and importance of AIDS education.
In 1989, ABC aired the television movie The Ryan White Story, starring Lukas Haas as Ryan, Judith Light as Jeanne and Nikki Cox as his sister Andrea. Ryan White had a small cameo appearance as “Chad” in the film, playing a boy also suffering from HIV who befriends Haas. Others in the film included Sarah Jessica Parker as a sympathetic nurse, George Dzundza as his doctor, and George C. Scott as Ryan’s attorney, who legally argued against school board authorities. Nielsen estimated that the movie was seen by 15 million viewers. Some residents of Kokomo felt that the movie was condemning of them for their actions against White. After the film aired, the office of Kokomo mayor Robert F. Sargent was flooded with complaints from across the country, although Robert Sargent had not been elected to the office during the time of the controversy.
By early 1990, White’s health was deteriorating rapidly. In his final public appearance, he hosted an after-Oscars party with former president Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy Reagan in California. Although his health was declining, Ryan White spoke to the Reagans about his date to the prom and his hopes of attending college.
On March 29, 1990, Ryan White entered Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis with a respiratory tract infection. As his condition deteriorated, he was sedated and placed on a ventilator. He was visited by Elton John and the hospital was deluged with calls from well-wishers. Ryan White died on April 8, 1990.
On April 11, 1990 1,500 people attended Ryan’s funeral at the second Presbyterian Church on Meridian Street in Indianapolis including Elton John, football star Howie Long and Michael Jackson.
Ryan White is buried in Cicero, close to the former home of his mother and he rests in peace.