Let­ter to Ryan White from the heart

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE -

DEAR RYAN, Twenty years ago this month, you died of AIDS. I would gladly give my fame and for­tune if only I could have one more con­ver­sa­tion with you, the friend who changed my life as well as the lives of mil­lions liv­ing with HIV. In­stead, I have writ­ten you this let­ter.

I re­mem­ber so well when we first met. A young boy with a ter­ri­ble dis­ease, you were the epit­ome of grace. You never blamed any­one for the ill­ness that rav­aged your body or the tor­ment and stigma you en­dured.

When stu­dents, par­ents and teach­ers in your com­mu­nity shunned you, threat­ened you and ex­pelled you from school, you re­sponded not with words of hate but with un­der­stand­ing be­yond your years. You said they were sim­ply afraid of what they did not know.

When the me­dia her­alded you as an “in­no­cent vic­tim” be­cause you had con­tracted AIDS through a blood trans­fu­sion, you re­jected that la­bel and stood in sol­i­dar­ity with thou­sands of HIV-pos­i­tive women and men. You re­minded Amer­ica that all vic­tims of AIDS are in­no­cent.

When you be­came a celebrity, you em­braced the op­por­tu­nity to ed­u­cate the nation about the AIDS epi­demic, even though your only wish was to live an or­di­nary life.

Ryan, I wish you could know how much the world has changed since 1990, and how much you changed it.

Young boys and girls with HIV at­tend school and take medicine that al­lows them to lead nor­mal lives. Chil­dren in Amer­ica are sel­dom born with the virus, and they no longer con­tract it through trans­fu­sions. The in­sults and in­jus­tices you suf­fered are not tol­er­ated by so­ci­ety.

Most im­por­tant, Ryan, you in­spired aware­ness, which helped lead to life­sav­ing treat­ments. In 1990, four months af­ter you died, Congress passed the Ryan White Care Act, which now pro­vides more than $2 bil­lion each year for AIDS medicine and treat­ment for half a mil­lion Amer­i­cans. To­day, count­less peo­ple with HIV live long, pro­duc­tive lives.

It breaks my heart that you are not one of them. You were 18 when you died, and you would be 38 this year, if only the cur­rent treat­ments ex­isted when you were sick. I think about this ev­ery day, be­cause Amer­ica needs your mes­sage of com­pas­sion as never be­fore.

Ryan, when you were alive, your story sparked a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion about AIDS. But de­spite all the progress in the past 20 years, the di­a­logue has waned. I know you would be try­ing to re­vive it if you were here to­day, when the epi­demic con­tin­ues to strike nearly ev­ery de­mo­graphic group, with more than 50,000 new in­fec­tions in the United States each year. I know you would be loudly call­ing for the Na­tional HIV/AIDS Strat­egy that was promised by Pres­i­dent Obama but has not yet been de­liv­ered. I know you would reach out to young peo­ple. I know you would work tire­lessly to help ev­ery­one suf­fer­ing from HIV, in­clud­ing those who live on the mar­gins of so­ci­ety.

It would sad­den you that to­day, in cer­tain parts of the United States, some poor peo­ple with AIDS are still placed on wait­ing lists to re­ceive treat­ment. It would anger you that your govern­ment is still not do­ing enough to help vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple with HIV and pop­u­la­tions that are at high risk of con­tract­ing the virus, in­clud­ing sex­u­ally ac­tive teenagers. It would up­set you that AIDS is a lead­ing cause of death among African-Amer­i­cans.

It would frus­trate you that even though hun­dreds of thou­sands of HIV-pos­i­tive Amer­i­cans are re­ceiv­ing treat­ment in your name, more than 200,000 don’t know their HIV-pos­i­tive sta­tus, largely be­cause of a lin­ger­ing stigma sur­round­ing the dis­ease that pre­vents them from be­ing tested. It would dis­ap­point you that many teenagers do not have ac­cess to sci­ence­based HIV-pre­ven­tion pro­grams in school, at a time when half of new in­fec­tions are be­lieved to be among peo­ple un­der 25.

I miss you so very much, Ryan. I was by your side when you died at Ri­ley Hos­pi­tal. You’ve been with me ev­ery day since. You in­spired me to change my life and carry on your work. Be­cause of you, I’m still in the strug­gle against AIDS, 20 years later. I pledge to not rest un­til we achieve the com­pas­sion for which you so bravely and beau­ti­fully fought.

Your friend,

El­ton Sir El­ton John, a Grammy-and Academy Award-win­ning artist, is the founder and chair­man of the El­ton John

AIDS Foun­da­tion.

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