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Remembering Ryan
By Elton John

Twenty years ago this month, my friend Ryan died of AIDS.  I would gladly give my fame and fortune if only I could hand this letter to the child who changed my life and the lives of millions living with HIV.

Dear Ryan,

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 in your community. 

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

When the media heralded you as an innocent victim who contracted AIDS through 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, because of you, countless people now live the life of which you dreamt.  I wish you could know the world today, how much it has changed, 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 HIV or contract it through transfusion.  No longer are the insults and injustices you suffered tolerated by society.

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

It breaks my heart that you are not one of them.  You were only 18 when you died, and you would be 38 this year, if only modern medicine had existed when you were sick.  I think about that every day, because America needs your message of compassion as ever before.

Ryan, when you were alive, your story sparked a national conversation about AIDS.   Despite all the progress made in the past 20 years, the dialogue has waned.  If you were here, I know your voice would be among the many trying to resurrect that conversation today, at a time when the epidemic is, by some measures, worsening.  I know you would be the loudest among those calling for a National HIV/AIDS Strategy that was promised, but has not yet been delivered, by President Obama.  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 states, poor people with AIDS are placed on a waiting list to receive treatment.  It would anger you that your government still turns away from vulnerable people with HIV and high-risk populations.  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 two hundred thousand don’t even know their status, thanks largely to lingering stigma surrounding the disease.  It would disappoint you that our teenagers learn little of HIV prevention in school, at a time when half of new infections are among young people under 25 years of age. 

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’ve stayed in the struggle against AIDS all this time.  I pledge to not rest until we realize the compassion for which you so bravely and beautifully fought.

Your friend,

Elton

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