Ryan White never set out to be the face of AIDS.
He likely didn’t want the spotlight at all, especially since in 1984, when he contracted the deadly disease, he was a 13-year-old in middle school, at a time when kids simply didn’t get anything like AIDS.
But he soon learned to embrace his new role and became an important advocate in increasing awareness of a public health matter, even if some people didn’t want to talk about it.
A few years earlier, an unknown and fatal virus was sweeping the world, with greater prominence in homosexual communities. Eventually, researchers found that there were two autoimmune infections at play: AIDS, and HIV, which can turn into AIDS anytime.
It was also eventually discovered that AIDS was spread via direct contact with bodily fluids, including blood.
Ryan was believed to have been infected by a tainted blood transfusion given him as treatment for hemophilia. He was initially given six months to live but ended up living for another six years.
Ryan’s diagnosis forced the public to confront that AIDS was no longer a lifestyle-based disease, but that potentially anyone can get it and die from it.
Greater awareness and prevention efforts accelerated, as well as greater funding. More attention has also led to greater safety procedures and equipment that are now standard in medical professions. In fact, one could conclude that some of the foundations for public health prevention efforts seen with COVID-19 were based on protocols developed around AIDS.
Even though Ryan White died years ago, his efforts are still being felt. And he’s important 20 years later.
Musician Elton John, who became friends with Ryan, was by his side when he died, wrote a letter to him in 2010, 20 years after his death.
In this touching note, perhaps one of his more famous letters, he shared memories of the time they spent together. Elton John said Ryan was always “the epitome of grace,” who really only wanted to live a normal life. He also never blamed anyone for the physical pain or the emotional pain AIDS caused him.
The letter shared the improvements that have been made in the world, many in Ryan’s memory. For instance, Congress came together and voted for the Ryan White Care Act, which authorized more than $2 billion annually for medicine and treatment for those with AIDS.
Elton John also launched the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which raises money to help people at a global level.
People with HIV now have access to medicine to allow them to live normal lives. Unlike Ryan, children with the disease can attend school with few extra accommodations and less social stigma.
Famous letters like this one emphasize that the fight against AIDS goes on in the U.S. and in other countries. There is some definite inequality domestically and internationally, including high numbers of African Americans dealing with the disease.
Elton John hopes Ryan would like how the world communicates better about AIDS today, but said he would likely be involved in efforts to craft a better national AIDS strategy. “America needs your message of compassion as never before.”
The letter is touching, powerful, and at times intimate, when Elton John shares that his friendship with Ryan changed the course of his life and inspired him to carry on his work.
There are certainly more famous letters in our culture’s shared history, such as missives between world leaders debating global issues. But this one is particularly special in its impact then and now.