Sixteen years after his death, Ryan White is still saving lives. “Without his pioneering ... I’d probably be out on the street or not even here,” said Wayne Coombs, a local man living with AIDS.

Coombs believes, like many, that White’s life and death changed the way Americans looked at AIDS.

In 1984 White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac, was diagnosed with AIDS after getting a contaminated blood transfusion.

Before White’s diagnosis, AIDS was known as the “gay cancer,” Coombs said.

When AIDS was first discovered in 1981 it primarily affected the gay communities on the east and west coasts.

Little else was known about the disease — until Ryan White brought it to nation’s forefront.

With little knowledge of the subject, the Western School Corp. barred White from attending school, a decision that would bring White, and AIDS, into the national media’s spotlight.

White’s story became a catalyst for people to learn more about the disease.

When White died April 8, 1990, he left behind a world that was far more educated and a foundation that would help others, like Coombs, who suffer from the AIDS virus that killed White.

“He really did the cause a tremendous amount of good. You couldn’t exploit homophobia anymore,” Howard County Public Health Nurse Judy Lausch said.

Lausch cited the Kaiser Family Foundation reports, which said more than 850,000 Americans are living with HIV and/or AIDS. The document said prolonged life is in large part due to medical advancements.

Rick Grisamore, 49, is an example of prolonged life. He was diagnosed with HIV in the late ’80s, long before the medical field thought an HIV or AIDS patient could live for more than a few years.

Grisamore plans to live to a “ripe old age”, but that won’t happen if he can’t pay the bills. Grisamore has to come up with nearly $2,000 a month for the medications to stay alive. Coombs, who was diagnosed in 1995, pays nearly $2,800 a month for the medication that keeps him alive.

That means Coombs, 46, and Grisamore have to rely on other means to stay alive, such as disability and Social Security.

It’s not because either of them are incapable of working, but rather, should they choose to work, their health benefits would disappear, and they wouldn’t be able to afford medication.

Sometimes even the benefits from Medicare, Social Security and disability aren’t enough.

Coombs said there have been times where he just couldn’t pay the bills and make the rent. That’s when the Ryan White AIDS Assistance Program stepped in, and helped Coombs pay for his medication and sometimes his groceries.

For that, Coombs would like to thank White.

“Thank you, because many times the Ryan White Foundation paid for my meds when I didn’t have the money,” he said.

However, Coombs said the foundation is funded by donations, which means there isn’t always enough to go around.

“People have to put funds in it,” Coombs explained.

“They do out West,” he said, adding he lived in California for years before returning home to Indiana, “but not here.”

“People are still scared,” Coombs said.

In Howard County, people can find AIDS support by contacting Judy Lausch at 765-456-2408 at the Howard County Health Center.

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