A Reluctant Hero: Betsy Ryan

By Wendy |

From 2009 – 2011, Our Bodies Ourselves honored the work of women’s health advocates worldwide by asking readers to nominate their favorite women’s health hero. View all nominees by year: 2009, 2010, 2011

Entrant: Steven Slosberg

Nominee: Betsy Ryan, RN

I’ve submitted a column I wrote about Betsy Ryan several years ago when I was a columnist for The Day, a daily newspaper in New London, Conn.

Betsy continues to work ardently as a nurse in the infectious diseases department at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, as well as in HIV/AIDS education and prevention in our community, and, as a breast cancer survivor, summons enviable energy in her commitment.

She is most deserving of this honor.

A reluctant hero on front lines of a long fight (originally published 10/01)

Knowing Betsy Ryan, I suspect the Alliance for Living first had to engrave and mail the invitations, post public notice in places beyond her reach and probably put a search party on standby before telling her she was going to be formally honored for her community service. There could be no way out of it.

Even then, says Peter Bowler, one of the Alliance for Living leaders, she tried to persuade the non-profit support group for people affected by HIV/AIDS in this region to give the award to more deserving folk or at least let them share it with her.

“I said, ‘Too late, Betsy,” said Bowler. “See you at the awards dinner.”

That would be next Wednesday night, at the Mystic Hilton, when Lizbeth Love Ryan, a registered nurse and longtime relentless advocate for HIV and AIDS education and prevention, is to receive the organization’s annual outstanding community service award as part of its Awards & Appreciation Night.

The thing is, Ryan, who works in Lawrence & Memorial Hospital’s infectious disease service, has yet to acknowledge that she will attend.

“If we have to track her down and hook her up to an ox and cart, she’ll be there,” said Bowler.

She is that modest, that reluctant to take a public bow, at least about her role in community HIV awareness, but absolutely not in her labors to make lives here better and safer.

There is Betsy Ryan, a slender figure, prim and proper might apply, standing in front of any group, demonstrating, step by step, the proper way to apply a condom, and candidly discussing spermicides and lubricants and why latex condoms are best because they’re man-made and the quality can be assured.

I saw her give such a demonstration for the first time before a roomful of politicians, educators, nurses and health care and human service agency workers at Ocean Beach one September day in 1989. She gave similarly straightforward demonstrations at Frank’s Place, a gay bar, in New London during the annual Celebration of Hope fund-raisers. She’s given hundreds and hundreds of them, all over the region.

She’s been admired as a caregiver and has served as an ad hoc spokeswoman for tracking HIV/AIDS here. Though not always the easiest person for a reporter to find at deadline, she has been consistently helpful in providing statistics, always protecting the confidentiality of those with the disease. She knows just what she can say and won’t be cajoled into saying more.

In her time here she’s coordinated the New London AIDS clinic, has been a mainstay of the AIDS care program at L&M and was president of the Women’s Center of Southeastern Connecticut. She moved here in 1972 and, except for a short time in Hawaii, has been a nurse at L&M. She started out in the emergency room. She’s in her early 50s, was raised in western Pennsylvania and for the last 15 years has lived with Ken Abrahms, who owns Art Unlimited in Ledyard. They have a home in Groton and one in Watch Hill.

Donna M. Greene, president of the Alliance for Living board, has known Ryan for nine years, since Greene was involved with Helping Our People Endure Foundation Inc. (HOPE), which, in April 1998, merged with the Southeastern Connecticut AIDS Project (SECAP) to form the Alliance for Living.

Greene, who works at Pfizer, has not always agreed with Ryan’s positions, notably Ryan’s opposition to needle exchange programs. But Greene admires Ryan’s courage of her convictions.

“She’s a very firm believer in what she stands up for,” says Greene. “She’s got all the facts. She really knows her business.”

She and Bowler and Michael Rosenkrantz, the executive director of Allliance for Living, decided it was time for Ryan to face facts, and receive the recognition.

“She’s one of the few people, out there in daily contact, in the front lines, who never loses her sunny disposition and always has her client’s best interest at heart,” said Greene.

Others will be honored at the dinner for volunteer work and Dr. Frederick Altice, an HIV specialist at Yale-New Haven Hospital, will be the keynote speaker.

Betsy Ryan will be recognized for her abiding dedication, and maybe the only way to assure her being there is the opportunity, with all those people gathered in one room, for her to unroll one more condom and deliver her unflinching AIDS 101 presentation, once again.

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