November 02, 2012 25 Stories: "We owe him compassion"


November 02, 2012



It’s 1986, and Dr. Woody Myers is standing before a crowd of medical professionals, media personnel, and concerned citizens in the auditorium at Indiana’s State Board of Health. As Indiana’s young, new state health commissioner, Myers knows this is his opportunity to show his community that Ryan White, the HIV+ 13-year old standing to his right, is just like any other kid. As the press conference to address White being banned from his Kokomo school gets underway, Myers, who’s only recently come to Indiana from the epicenter of the HIV epidemic in San Francisco, reaches over, puts his hand on Ryan’s head, and scruffs his hair.

And that one small gesture, he recalls, reminded people that Ryan was just a kid. “This is not the enemy. He is not a carrier of disease designed to infect you or anyone else. This is a little boy with hemophilia who got a very raw deal,” Myers remembers. “We owe him compassion, we owe him respect, we owe him our love, we owe him his dignity, we owe him the opportunity to be as normal as possible for as long as possible. And all the kid wanted to do was go to school and not be treated badly by people in his neighborhood.”

When White contracted HIV from a blood transfusion to treat his hemophilia, Dr. Myers explains, the health officer in Kokomo allowed local residents’ fear of their children contracting HIV through casual contact to determine his decision to ban the 13 year-old from school in Kokomo.

“From a public health standpoint, I couldn’t let that stand,” he said. “We told him, we know this is not spread by casual contact, so we support him going to school.” To get the message across, Myers held a press conference to show the public that “it was okay to be with people that had HIV.”

According to Myers, “people had done all kinds of awful things” to the Whites because of Ryan’s HIV status. Fear engulfed the small community of Kokomo. Gunshots were the last straw that led the family to move to Cicero, a community north of Indianapolis, where Myers and his team worked to make sure Ryan and his mother were welcomed and accepted. “Ryan wanted to go to school. That’s basically it,” he recalls. How did they do it? Through education, persistence, and a community of people willing to open their minds and hearts.

“The long and short of it is that on the first day of school there was a welcoming committee,” Myers says. “They came out and they hugged him when he came to school that first day. They just made him feel as if he were just part of the gang. And that was exactly what we wanted.”

As health commissioner in Indiana, Myers went on to put Indiana on the map as a leader in health education, not some “backwoods, can’t-think, hillbilly kind of state.” Today, we continue the physician’s crusade through education, prevention, testing, and programs that both empower those who have HIV and fight to prevent the spread of it.