A 'princess' finds acceptance

AIDS patient Dori felt like an outsider, but she got nothing but hugs from her hero Ricky Martin

December 29, 2003 

In the summer of 2000, Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" was all over Top 40 radio stations. Every time Dori Bryon heard the salsa beat, she danced - at home, in a crowded restaurant, or in her room at Children's Hospital in Seattle.

"He makes me forget my pain," she said.

That summer, the pain was particularly bad. She was going through chemotherapy after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, one of her illnesses after being born with HIV.

When she hurt the most, she played Ricky Martin's music and retreated into her "Ricky World." When she found out Martin was coming to the Tacoma Dome, she desperately wanted to meet him.

I looked for ways to ease her suffering. While love alone couldn't save her, maybe it could get her Ricky Martin.

If only he knew about her, I thought. But what if he met her and she saw a glimpse of fear or shock in his eyes? How would this young, good-looking pop star treat a bald 16-year-old? Would Martin be like so many others who recoiled at the sight of an emaciated AIDS patient?

I didn't know how he'd react, but I had to try. Dori's mom, doctors, friends, Internet groups and I all wrote letters asking Martin to meet her after his show.

It worked.

The day before the concert, I had a message on my home answering machine:

"We got the letters about Dori," Martin's publicist said. "She can meet him after the show."

When I told Dori the news, she was overcome. She curled into a ball on her bed and opened her mouth in a silent shriek of euphoria.

The evening of the concert, Dori was tired and fighting a headache, so she rested her head on my shoulder to take a short nap after we found our seats at the Dome. But when Martin took the stage, she squealed, jumped from her wheelchair and danced to the first song, "Livin' La Vida Loca."

I've never seen such complete joy on anyone's face. She turned to me and said all of her pain was gone.

Afterward, we went backstage to meet Martin. We waited in a large room with about 20 other people. Martin arrived and began greeting fans. Most of them got a quick handshake, hug and photo with him.

By the time he reached us, Dori was exhausted and nauseated. She slumped in her wheelchair, and leaned on me with her eyes closed.

He stopped and put his hand on hers. She opened her eyes - wide.

"Hello, princess," he said. "Thank you so much for being here."

He asked if he could give her a hug and Dori latched on to him like an octopus. She got out the words "Thank you so much," and then cried.

Martin didn't let go.

He knelt so he was at eye level with her. They talked about taking things a day at a time and when that's too hard, taking it a minute at a time. All the while, Martin held Dori's hand.

He kissed her twice.

He wasn't afraid. He didn't back down from the emotion of the moment.

Dori asked him to sign several photos she'd brought and then gave him a drawing she'd done of herself with words describing her hopes: "survivor," "fighter," "wife and mother," "loving," "finding a cure for AIDS."

"I want you to know who I really am," she told him.

"But I do see who you are, I see your spirit," he said. "It's what's in your soul that counts. I feel we know each other already in our souls."

Martin's assistant tugged at him to move along and finish the rounds, but he said he'd come back. He did.

The two talked for a while longer. He looked her in the eyes and said "You're beautiful," and for the first time in a long while, I think she really believed it. The wig she brought to wear to meet Martin stayed at the bottom of my bag all night.

Standing next to Dori's wheelchair I made a vow: I would buy every CD Ricky Martin recorded for the rest of my life.

While Dori found acceptance from her singing idol, it wasn't always that easy with strangers, or even friends. As a child, some children and adults rejected her when they learned she had AIDS. Others were startled by how sick she looked. I didn't see her that way; I loved her.

A few months before Dori met Martin, her mom, Barb, and I took her out of the hospital on a pass. Dori had a feeding tube down her nose, was in a wheelchair and had lost her hair to chemotherapy, but she wanted to go to the mall like other high school kids.

At Westfield mall in Tukwila, a teenage girl spotted her and gasped, raising her hand to cover her mouth. I don't know if Dori saw it, but I did and hated that girl. After that, I tried to lock eyes with anyone approaching us, warning them not to stare at Dori, trying to build a wall of love to protect her.

When we looked in the mirror together, I saw a beautiful, graceful young woman. Dori saw a gaunt, frail teenager who wished she looked like everyone else.

"I am very jealous of a lot of people I know because of their looks, energy and popularity," she said.

Dori always felt like an outsider harboring a secret. In fifth grade, she decided to trust a neighborhood friend with that secret. As she and Artea played, Dori told her that she had AIDS. Artea seemed to take the news calmly and Dori thought it had gone well - until Artea started telling others at school.

"Stay away from that girl, she has AIDS," kids said. "She can kill you."

Dori's tears propelled her home and Barb, furious, confronted Artea.

"The girl started crying," Barb remembered, "and I said, 'This was something you shouldn't have done and because of this, kids are going to be cruel to her and you better be there for her.' And you know what? She was."

The girl and several trusted friends tried to protect Dori from tormentors at school.

"The hardest thing about AIDS is not feeling accepted by my peers," Dori said. "That's why I haven't told many of them. When we don't understand something it's called ignorance, right? You can't get mad at ignorance because that's all it is."

Barb and Dori found kindred spirits at BABES, a group of Seattle area women living with HIV and AIDS, and Rise n' Shine, a nonprofit group that offers support to children and teens affected by the disease.

The pair traveled the West Coast talking to groups about what it's like to live with AIDS.

But Dori still didn't have many friends her age, so she escaped into a world filled with imaginary ones.

When she was little, Barb often heard her in her room talking to them. In middle and high school, she wrote stories and drew pictures of them.

She became passionate about video games, and often played for hours. She always chose to be a strong, beautiful, nimble female character. At her touch, they would kick and punch their way through the enemy. Through them, she could move with an ease she never had in her own body.

Above all, they courted death and defied it, as had Dori.

She and Barb told me a story about a trip to the grocery store when Dori was about 6. The story captures their spirit, that same spirit Ricky Martin connected with that night at the Tacoma Dome.

Barb and Dori rounded a corner of a store aisle and came face to face with an old acquaintance. The woman looked at the two of them, stepped back and said, "Oh! You're still alive."

"Yeah," Barb said, "and we're going to be that way for a while!"

Linda Dahlstrom: 253-597-8438

Where to go for help or to volunteer

For information about HIV and AIDS, or to volunteer, contact the following organizations in Tacoma and Seattle.

REACH Ministries

A Christian organization offering camp, mentoring, outreach and more to children affected by HIV and AIDS.

419 Martin Luther King Jr. Way

Tacoma, WA 98405



Multifaith Works

Offers practical and emotional support and housing for people living with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses through individual volunteers, care teams and more.

1801 12th Ave., Suite A

Seattle, WA 98122



Point Defiance AIDS Project and North American Syringe Exchange


Pierce County AIDS Foundation

Offers information and services to people living with HIV and AIDS and their families, including case management, information about HIV testing, emergency grants, outreach, food and transportation assistance and more.

625 Commerce St., Suite 10

Tacoma, WA 98402



Rise n' Shine

Serving children and teens affected by HIV and AIDS through camp, mentoring programs, a support group and more.

1305 Fourth Ave., Suite 404

Seattle, WA 98101-2401



Tacoma-Pierce County Heath Department

Offers HIV and AIDS information, case management, referral service and testing.

3629 South D St.

Tacoma, WA 98418-6813



Tacoma Urban League

Offers HIV counseling, testing and outreach

2550 S. Yakima Ave.

Tacoma, WA 98405

253-383-2007, ext 225


Babes Network

Serving women facing HIV through peer support, advocacy, education and outreach.

1120 E. Terrace St.

Seattle, WA 98122


People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN), Tacoma

Offers support groups, HIV testing, AIDS education and referral for people of color.

919 S. Ninth St.

Tacoma, WA 98405



Planned Parenthood

Offers HIV testing and information

Call 1-800-230-7526 to find the nearest clinic.


Seattle AIDS Support Group

Provides support groups, mentoring and retreats for those living with HIV and AIDS.

303 17th Ave. E.

Seattle, WA 98112



Lifelong AIDS Alliance

Offers HIV and AIDS information and education as well as practical support services such as food, transportation and housing assistance for those with HIV and AIDS, their friends and family and the gay community.

1002 East Seneca St.

Seattle, WA 98122



HIV counseling and testing, referrals, transportation, outreach and education.

7902 27th St. W.

University Place, WA 98466



Washington State AIDS Hotline


Dori & me: 'Together forever, no matter what'

For eight years, News Tribune assistant features editor Linda Dahlstrom was friends with Dori Bryon, who was born HIV-positive in 1983 and died this fall at 20.

With her blessing, Linda began chronicling Dori's life to, in her words, "tell people what it's really like to live with AIDS." Dori also invited News Tribune photographer Janet Jensen into her life.

Sunday: Dori and Linda's loving, but also trying, relationship.

Today: After years of being shunned by peers, Dori finds acceptance in an unlikely place.

Tuesday in SoundLife: Dori's alternating struggle to defy death and to give in to the inevitability of it.

Wednesday in SoundLife: Dying with grace, and how Dori taught Linda to deal with loss.

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