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    Robert Ray, 22, succumbs to longtime AIDS struggle

    By CRAIG BASSE and MIKE BRASSFIELD

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 2000


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Robert Ray, one of three young Florida brothers who gained nationwide attention after being infected with the AIDS virus from tainted blood, died Friday at All Children's Hospital of complications from the disease. He was 22.

    In the days before the nation's blood supply was tested for HIV, Mr. Ray and his brothers were infected through contaminated blood products used to treat their hemophilia. They won a court battle to go to school in rural De Soto County 13 years ago, only to be burned out of their home.

    Their plight paralleled that of another young hemophiliac AIDS patient, Ryan White, who died in 1990.

    Mr. Ray underwent surgery at All Children's on Oct. 5 to have his spleen removed. It had become enlarged as the result of his hemophilia and AIDS.

    He had become engaged earlier this year. He and his fiancee later agreed to postpone their December nuptials.

    "He just wanted to be a husband and a father. It wasn't like he wanted something great out of life. He just wanted to be normal," said his father, Clifford Ray, who, with his wife Louise, has spoken publicly many times about the family's plight -- from network television appearances to testimony before Congress.

    Surgery was unable to save Robert Ray, and his health took a turn for the worse. He had been heavily sedated and on a respirator since Monday, and his family had the respirator removed Thursday.

    "His desire was that if they could fix whatever was wrong and make him better, that would be fine," Louise Ray said. "But there's a difference in using life support for treatment vs. prolonging life, and that was his feeling too."

    Until the AIDS virus infected the three boys and made them targets of community outrage and fear, they were part of an everyday family in Arcadia, a small De Soto County town.

    Ricky, the eldest of the brothers, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1991. He died Dec. 13, 1992, shortly after President-elect Bill Clinton called him at All Children's to say he would work to fund the fight against AIDS. Ricky was 15.

    Robert, the second son, came down with full-blown AIDS in 1990.

    The youngest brother, Randy, now 21, remains in good health and holds a maintenance job in Orlando.

    When Mrs. Ray learned that her sons had developed the AIDS antibodies -- they were 7, 8 and 9 -- she went to her local pastor for counseling. He asked the Rays not to come to church.

    In 1986 the De Soto County School Board banned the Ray boys from classes. The Rays moved to Alabama, but when the boys' school records caught up with them, they were removed from classes there.

    The family moved back to Arcadia and decided to fight. In 1987 they sued the De Soto County School Board, seeking a court order that would allow the children to attend classes.

    Many parents kept their children at home in a boycott after a federal judge ordered the school system to admit Robert and his brothers. Bomb threats forced the temporary closure of the school.

    A week after the judge ruled, the Rays' home was gutted by fire. Fearing for their lives, the family fled Arcadia. Police suspected arson but never proved it.

    The case drew national attention. The parents appeared on television programs such as Nightline, the network morning shows and Donahue.

    In a widely publicized hearing, the Rays testified in 1987 before the U.S. Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Mrs. Ray said she did not know much about AIDS before her own family's nightmare began. In 1985, for instance, she had refused to allow her sons to attend a summer camp for hemophiliac children because she feared AIDS.

    "I'm ashamed of myself now," she told the committee headed by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "The biggest problem is people are not educated. We hope what we've gone through will make America open its eyes and say, "That family could be us.' "

    Clifford and Louise Ray then found a home in Orlando for their three sons and one daughter.

    In those days the athletic Robert was hooked on sports as he and his surviving brother, Randy, sought to live the lives of ordinary teenage boys. Their parents did not baby them, figuring they deserved full lives if they couldn't have long ones.

    In 1995, at age 17, Robert began treatments at All Children's in what was one in a series of medical setbacks for him.

    His declining health prompted the family to move from Orlando to Sarasota. That put them closer to All Children's, which Mrs. Ray said was "almost like a second home." They recently moved to Bay Minette, Ala., for the lower cost of living.

    - Information from Times files and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune was used in this obituary.

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