In an age when heroes are even scarcer that honest politicians, it is startling to discover that sometimes they can be found right in our own backyard.
Take Ryan Gralinski, for instance. The Coventry eighth-grader and his family learned only a few months ago that Ryan is infected with HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS.
That shocking reality initially rocked the victim and his family.
“It was just dumped on us. It was pretty horrible,” his mother admitted.
Ryan is a hapless sufferer of this insidious virus, having contracted it through no fault of his own: a blood transfusion which he received shortly after birth nearly thirteen years ago involved contaminated blood. All those years elapsed with the Gralinsky family living under the illusion that, except for his slightly smaller stature than his twin brother Brett, Ryan was healthy.
Coming face to face with the realization of one’s own mortality is shattering even for the most hardened among us. For a kid just about to enter his teens, it’s a brutal, incomprehensible collision with the indifference of fate. For his family it’s the most gut-wrenching of all possible nightmares.
No disease — not cancer, not anything else — causes more terror than AIDs. It is a horrifying, ultimately terminal disease, as yet without a cure, despite the intense search for one. The microscopic virus lurks in the host’s bloodstream, steadily and stealthily destroying the body’s immune system until the ravaged body of the victim eventually succumbs to some opportunistic infection. Few — precious few — have the fortitude to confront with equanimity, grace, and dignity, the paralyzing prospect of being assaulted by AIDS. Arthur Ashe, the remarkable tennis star and humanitarian, did. Do did the inspiring Ryan White. And add basketball legend Magic Johnson to that list. Now Rhode Island’s own Ryan Gralinski is somehow managing to do so too.
Ryan will be the first to remind you that he doesn’t have AIDS itself, nor does he plan on expiring any time soon. So, with the assistance of a supportive family, he decided to share his unenviable secret with his classmates. If facing the reality of his infection was jolting, informing the hundreds of kids around him in school must have been only slightly less terrifying. HIV infection has a tendency to arouse irrational fears, even hysteria, among those who remain ignorant of the risks for contracting it. Tragically, more than a few HIV victims have sustained the torture of isolation, rejection, taunts, and threats, as if their anguish over the infection itself weren’t enough of a burden for any human being to bear.
Ryan, nevertheless, plunged ahead with his decision to inform his schoolmates at Coventry Middle School despite the risks and the profound skepticism of his parents, who eventually surrendered to his wishes and rallied to his side.
“We weren’t sure what we were going to run into. Ryan had told a couple of friends. It started leaking around, and he didn’t want rumors. He wanted to see where he stood with his friends…It was a scary trip, I’ll tell you that,” his mother confided to me.
Ryan was encouraged in his decision to go public by a Massachusetts boy in similar circumstances who had found support among his peers when he divulged the news of the HIV infection he had carried secretly for years. The two forged a “unique relationship”, according to Mrs. Gralinsky.
Thankfully, the reaction from Coventry to date has been overwhelmingly positive. School officials, classmates, friends, and the town itself have literally and figuratively embraced this courageous teenager-to-be.
Mrs. Gralinsky told me that school officials have been responsive to Ryan’s needs, and local residents have reacted to the news with sensitivity and compassion. She attributes that to the sense of involvement which pervades the town and the multitude of people whom the Gralinkys have befriended through their twin sons’ participation in various local athletic activities.
In addition, she said that Ryan, his brother Brett, and the entire family are “getting a lot of strength” from the well-wishes conveyed through phone calls and letters from friends, acquaintances, and strangers alike. Besides that, his medical team has been sensational. That might help to explain Ryan’s amazingly positive outlook, but, by itself, it doesn’t account completely for his inimitable optimism: “I have time and technology on my side,” Ryan told reporters about his long-term prospects. There’s an inner strength and stability, a maturity beyond his years, that nourishes Ryan’s hopeful attitude.
I inquired why the boy-man ever asked himself, “Why me?” Never, his mother told me. “He’s never felt sorry for himself. Ryan is a real neat kid. He’s dealing very well. He handles it maturely,” she revealed with an understated maternal pride.
Ryan had no previous battles with adversity; still, he has the mettle of a survivor.
“Ryan has matured a lot” during the last few months, Mrs. Gralinsky noted. Hopefully, HIV has not robbed him of his youth. But it certainly has changed some aspects of the family’s life in a fundamental way. And not all of it negatively.
The Gralinsky family has adopted an attitude of “taking life one day at a time,” and like so many others who have attained a measure of wisdom through personal tragedy, they appreciate and savor their time together. Little is taken for granted now.
No teenager should have to wrestle with the specter that now haunts Ryan’s life. No parent or sibling should have to suffer the agony of knowing their loved one is at risk. Yet, too often they do.
The heroes of ancient times jeopardized their lives to gain fame, admiration, and immortality by overcoming mythical demons of amazing size and surpassing strength. Ryan, his family, and the good people of Coventry are similarly battling a modern monster that is all too real. They too are showing a steely determination to prevail over the plague of our age.
The reclusive Amherst poet, Emily Dickinson, understood the human capacity to overcome the impossible when she wrote more than a century and a quarter ago:
“We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies.”
No one can question Ryan Gralinsky’s stature. And because of his valiant example, the rest of us can learn the secret to coping with life’s tribulations which await us all in one form or another.
A version of this article was published in 1994.