Mario Smith was just 18 years old, but he had plans for his life. After high school graduation, he was going to enlist in the Navy. He saw it as a way to lift himself out of poverty and get into college. The physical exam required as a part of the enlistment process, however, revealed that he had HIV. As he struggled to absorb the shocking news, Mario was terrified about what the diagnosis meant for his plans, his health, and his relationships with family and friends.
Breaking the news to his family was hard. His mother Teresa was devastated yet pledged her full support. “He is my son, and I didn’t want to lose him,” she says. “I was determined to love him and do everything I could to make sure he got the care and support he needed to stay healthy.”
That resolve brought Teresa and Mario to Detroit’s Horizons Project, a grantee of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Health Resources Services Administration’s (HRSA’s) HIV/AIDS Bureau (HAB). Horizons, a highly acclaimed program that is part of the Wayne State University School of Medicine, provides services to HIV-positive and at-risk youth ages 13–24.
That Teresa had a place to take her son for youth-centered HIV care reflects one of the crowning achievements of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program: the capacity to build programs that reflect the changing demographics of HIV. At Horizons, Teresa and Mario encountered a comprehensive response to Mario’s needs as an HIV-positive young person. It is the kind of holistic program that no one could have imagined during the first years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Indeed, no one knew it would ever be needed.
HIV/AIDS: No One Is Immune
By 1982, the year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), cases had been reported among hemophiliacs and in a few women, infants, and recipients of blood transfusions. Yet the general public still perceived AIDS as a “gay man’s disease.”
That began to change in December 1984 when a teen from small-town Indiana was diagnosed with AIDS. Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac who contracted the HIV virus through a routine blood products treatment, spurred controversy because he fought tirelessly against HIV discrimination and stigma until his death from AIDS in April 1990. His public struggle helped to broaden America’s concept of what the face of AIDS looks like.