WASHINGTON -- In a soft, sweet voice interrupted by coughs, 16-year-old Ryan White told the president's AIDS commission that he is finally happy, healthy and looking forward to graduation in 1991.
Testifying before the President's Commission on the HIV Epidemic, the Indiana youth said Thursday he and his family were finally starting to win a long struggle, both with the symptoms of the fatal disease caused by the human immunodeficiency virus and with discrimination.
The calm, diminutive teenager with a gentle, ready grin told the commissioners he had contracted the AIDS virus from a contaminated drug used to treat his hemophilia.
White's mother was informed he had AIDS in 1984 while the boy was undergoing surgery to remove two inches of his left lung damaged by pneumonia.
'I came face to face with death at 13 years old,' White said.
'Being the fighter that I am, I set high goals for myself. It was my decision to live a normal life, go to school, be with my firends and enjoy day-to-day activities. It was not going to be easy.'
What ensued was a series of court battles to win a place in school and overcome unfounded fears that the acquired immune deficiency syndrome virus could be passed in casual contact.
'Because of the lack of education on AIDS, discrimination, fear, panic and lies surrounded me. I became the target of Ryan White jokes, lies about me biting people, spitting on vegetables and cookies in grocery stores, urinating on bathroom walls,' White said. 'My school locker was vandalized and folders were marked 'fag' and other obscenities.'
'Even at church people would not shake my hand.'
White's struggle, however, won him famous friends, including New York mayor Ed Koch, athletes Greg Louganis and Lyndon King, and his 'teen idol,' actress Alyssa Milano.
Money from a movie about his life enabled the Whites to move from Kokomo, Ind., to Cicero, Ind., where White said his life improved dramatically.
The teachers, students and parents at Cicero's Hamilton Heights High School participated in a massive educational campaign before White started attending in September 1987. Student council president, and White's neighbor, senior Jill Stewart, told the commission the program paved the way for White's smooth entrance into the community.
'I'm a normal, happy teenager again. I have a learner's permit to drive. I attend sports functions and dances,' White said. 'I even made the honor role recently, with two A's and two B's.'
'I'm just one of the kids, and all because the students at Hamilton Heights High School listened to the facts, educated their parents and themselves and believed in me,' he said.
Stewart said football players offered to carry White's books - 'even though he didn't need it' -- while others asked to sit next to him in class.
'I look forward to graduating from Hamilton Heights High School in 1991,' White said. White said he is now taking the drug AZT and is feeling 'great.'
In a news conference after testifying, Stewart gave White's hand a surreptitious sqeeze under the table.
'Our school has been commended on what we have done for Ryan,' Stewart said, 'But no one realizes how much he has done for us.'
'We have learned and grown so much from knowing Ryan,' said Stewart. 'He puts life in perspective in many ways and these things you cannot measure.'