Remembering Kokomo's Ryan White 25 Years On

Apr 8, 2015

Kokomo's Ryan White became a media sensation after his HIV diagnosis in 1984. While still a teenager, White worked to raise HIV/AIDS awareness before his death in 1990.
Credit Courtesy / HRSA.gov

Wednesday marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Kokomo teenager Ryan White. After contracting HIV five years earlier via a blood transfusion, the 18-year-old died in Indianapolis.

In the 1980s, HIV was still a relatively new disease to most people. Those who contracted it were often highly stigmatized, in part because of the disease’s association with gay men.

White was diagnosed as HIV-positive in December 1984 during a lung operation, having apparently contracted the virus through a blood transfusion. When he began feeling healthier in 1985, his family’s request for White to be readmitted to school was denied by the superintendent.

The ensuing legal battle found school officials fighting to keep White from re-admitting, due to fears the teenager would spread the virus. He eventually won re-admission, but remained largely isolated from friends and staff.

The legal process surrounding White’s case eventually broke wide, launching him into the national spotlight and making him a poster child for AIDS awareness efforts.

Tom Bartenbach is the executive director of the Damien Center, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that provides HIV services.

"That calming voice coming from a child, when you think back on it, was so amazing…Just the fact that he was able to grasp the magnitude of what he was doing still lingers on today."

Bartenbach warns, though, that the recent HIV epidemic in Southeastern Indiana serves a reminder that the disease has not gone away.

He says education is still the key, especially among poorer populations that have limited access to healthcare.

(Ed.: For more on Ryan White's legacy, read Gretchen Frazee's full story here.)