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Atascadero boy, Ryan Thomas, taught the world about AIDS

The Thomases: Judy, Robin and children Ryan, Richard and Robert in 1988
The Thomases: Judy, Robin and children Ryan, Richard and Robert in 1988

When a public health issue — like ebola — becomes a focal point for fear, it tempts those who trade in fear to leap into the fray.

The last major national political-public health issue involved the AIDS crisis.

When it was first discovered in 1981, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome was associated with gay males and injected drug users.

In fact an early acronym — GRID or gay-related immunodeficiency — was dropped as understanding of the health care crisis progressed.

Political allies of President Ronald Reagan in the religious right, like Jerry Falwell, called the disease a punishment from God, “a gay plague.”

Early misinformation and fear were slow to diminish as scientific discovery advanced understanding.

Critics faulted the president for reacting too slowly to a health care issue that affected thousands.

San Luis Obispo County and the nation began to understand and address the scope of issue via Ryan Thomas, a kindergartner with AIDS, who was denied access to public school.

Fear was in evidence, an April 1, 1987 story that said that a vandal broke the lug nuts off Thomas’ van and twice flattened their tires.

On Nov. 29, 1991 Telegram-Tribune reporter Ann Fairbanks wrote about the brief life of Ryan Thomas:

Ryan Thomas loses battle with AIDS: SLO boy, 10, dies in ambulance on Thanksgiving

Ryan Thomas lost his 10-year battle with AIDS on Thanksgiving Day.

The San Luis Obispo youngster who captured national attention died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital at about 6:30 a.m., said his mother, Judy.

“He seized and we called 911,” she said, “and between the house and the hospital, we lost him.”

Judy was with Ryan on that last run.

“The last thing I heard about my baby was, ‘Cardiac arrest,’” she said. “I started yelling, ‘It’s OK, baby, it’s OK, hang in there.’

“But when we got to the hospital, they told me to go inside and talk to the receptionist. They wouldn’t even get him out. I knew then. I just…I died.”

Ryan’s father Robin, had given his son mouth-to-mouth resuscitation while they waited for the paramedics.

“Part of me feels relief because he’s telling me that he’s not suffering now and he’s not hurting and he’s up where he should be,” Robin said Thursday evening. “And part of me is hurting so bad I don’t know what to do.”

But the Thomas family will survive the ordeal, he said, knowing that Ryan “lived more out of his 10 years than I have in 33.

“I imagine even if I live to be 80 years old, he’ll have ended up getting more out of his life and touching more people than I can even imagine touching.

“I think that’s why he’s gone on Thanksgiving. That way, everybody who ever met him or saw him on TV will remember him on Thanksgiving.”


Ryan celebrated his 10th birthday on Oct. 20, surrounded at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center by hundreds of cards and dozens of balloons and gifts from well wishers around the country.

He was hospitalized for three weeks, the latest in a series of emergencies caused by a half-dozen inoperable aneurysms in his brain. He had undergone surgery last year for the aneurysms – bulges on the side of a blood vessel – but any more operations were ruled too dangerous.

Although doctors established no conclusive link between the aneurysms and Ryan’s AIDS, his parents felt they were probably a side effect of AZT, an anti-AIDS drug.

Ryan contracted AIDS by a blood transfusion soon after his premature birth. Most of his first four years were spent in and out of hospitals, until doctors figured out he had AIDS.

Once treated for the virus, Ryan blossomed.

In 1986, he captured attention from the White House and reporters from around the nation when his parents fought an Atascadero Unified School District ruling that prevented Ryan, then 5, from attending kindergarten because he had AIDS.

After a 10-month legal battle, Ryan was allowed to attend classes, but was kicked out six days later when he bit a classmate in a schoolyard scuffle.

Ryan later returned to school when a U.S. District Court judge ruled there was nothing to fear from him.

Except for his AIDS treatments and the media attention, Ryan lived as normal a life as possible. He remained in school, entering the fourth grade at San Gabriel Road Elementary School this fall.

But he attended class only two days before he suffered a seizure and was hospitalized for his last extended stay.

After being discharged four days after his 10th birthday, Ryan and his family moved into a San Luis Obispo house so they could be closer to the hospital.

At the time, Dr. Rene Bravo, Ryan’s doctor, said Ryan’s “life could cease momentarily with the sudden rupture or hemorrhage of one of these aneurysms, or he could go on for a long period of time.”

On the day before Thanksgiving, Judy took Ryan to Santa Maria to see his grandmother.

“He walked in with her help,” Robin said, “and when he got back here he sat up in his wheelchair, eating and watching TV. Everything seemed to be great.

Although he had a hospital bed Ryan preferred to sleep on the living room couch.

“Judy and I would sleep on the floor right below him, Robin said, “and as soon as he made a sound we’d get up.”

Judy was up watching cartoons with Ryan at about 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day.

“I was sitting on the bed with him,” Judy said, “and I tried to give him a big hug. He was as stiff as a board. I told his dad, ‘He’s seized.’”

His father jumped up “and grabbed him and tried to get him breathing,” Robin said. “He wouldn’t breathe and was turning blue so I game him mouth-to-mouth and he got his color back. The paramedics got here and said he was doing fine.”

Robin expected that Ryan would be home by that evening to enjoy the Thanksgiving dinner the Judy had been shopping for and planning for days.

“Judy told me yesterday it would be a perfect Thanksgiving,” Robin said Thursday, “because we had so much to be thankful for that Ryan was still here.”

But “it all changed” once the ambulance got to the hospital and Robin followed a few minutes later in the car – which he had to hot-wire because Judy had the car keys in her pocket.

“They wouldn’t tell me nothing until he got there,” Judy said. When he did, they took him back to a room and I walked back there and I saw Ryan lying on the gurney with no machines, no monitors, no nothing. I knew.”

Accompanied by three nurses and a doctor, Robin was told that “Ryan was gone and they’d done everything the possibly could,’ Robin said.

Ryan was pronounced dead at 7:15 a.m., according to a hospital spokeswoman. The cause of death is as yet undetermined, Robin said. Funeral details were to be worked out this morning.

Ryan’s two brothers – Richard, 14, and Robert, 12, were with their parents in the hospital. “They’ve been in the background a lot of times and haven’t gotten credit for what they do,” Robin said, “but they’ve always been there for him.

“They did something I wasn’t capable of doing,” Robin said. “They went in to see him. I felt I needed to remember him out of the hospital and full of life. Neither Judy nor I could go in and see him.

“They went in and said he looked very peaceful and like he was sleeping.”


Ryan really touched thousands of lives,” Robin said. “The main thing we can hope for is that he won’t be forgotten and that if anyone ever runs across another kid like him that they will treat him like gold.

“Don’t be afraid of him. Don’t be afraid to touch him. Send him a card. They need that. They draw on that.

“And hopefully anybody that’s ever seen him on TV or read about him in the newspaper will gain a little bit of strength from him,” Robin said, “and they won’t let anybody push around a kid who has AIDS again.”