Ron Woodroof, 1950-1992
Story by Irwin M. Rappaport
Recording by Matthew McConaughey
Photo © The Dallas Morning News
Ron Woodroof was an unlikely hero, but he rose to the occasion and became a lifeline for many people with AIDS in the Dallas area. Ron created the Dallas Buyers Club in 1988 to get HIV and AIDS medication to those in need who couldn’t legally get it from doctors and pharmacies.
I’m Matthew McConaughey. I had the privilege of portraying Ron in the 2013 movie Dallas Buyers Club, for which I was honored with the Academy Award for Best Actor.
Ron, a feisty, foul-mouthed electrician who lived in Oak Lawn, Texas, tested positive for HIV in the mid-80s and was given only a few months to live. Soon after, his third marriage ended in divorce. When the FDA-approved drug AZT failed to help his condition and caused significant side effects, Ron researched and bought drugs from outside the U.S. that were not approved by the U.S. government. They helped lessen his symptoms and prolong his life, but the FDA wouldn’t allow Americans to bring more than a three-months supply of unapproved drugs into the U.S., and clearly many people didn’t have the money to travel abroad to buy medicine.
With the help of his doctor and a fellow patient, he began importing, or obtaining from underground chemists in the U.S., different drugs, nutritional supplements and treatments through The Dallas Buyers Club for use by others suffering from HIV and AIDS. Eventually, the club imported over 100 different treatments. Clubs would often test samples of new drugs at a friendly laboratory to make sure they had the right quality and potency.
According to a Dallas Morning News article in 1992, Ron, who often dressed as a priest or a doctor in a white lab coat, made over 300 trips across the U.S./Mexico border, smuggling as many as half a million pills in the trunk of his Lincoln Continental, tricked out with heavy duty air shocks so that the car wouldn’t sag with all the extra weight. Ron and others who worked at or bought drugs from the buyers’ club risked arrest and death by importing and taking unapproved medications, but when your disease is a death sentence, is it really such a big risk?
As Ron put it, “Dammit … I don’t see how anything can be more toxic than HIV itself. I have taken chances that have almost killed me and I will keep on taking them. I have nothing to lose.”
Many buyers’ club operators and customers accused the big pharma companies and their FDA regulators of conspiring to keep drug prices high and to keep new competing drugs out of the hands of patients. Certainly, the slow pace of FDA drug approval was no help to terminally ill people on death’s doorstep.
Ron took an experimental drug called peptide T, which was used to treat AIDS-related dementia, but when the U.S. government intervened and stopped his supplier in Denmark from shipping out the drug, Ron sued the Food & Drug Administration.
“I have no choice with peptide T,” Ron said. “It is the only line I have to staying alive. When I stop it, I start dragging my leg. I urinate on myself. I can’t speak. I slobber all over the damn place.”
A judge ruled against Ron, saying that although there was no Constitutional right to import unapproved drugs, he personally thought that terminally ill people should be able to buy them. Ron managed to strike a deal that allowed him to get the drug and report his results to the FDA.
Ron died in 1992, six years after his HIV diagnosis.
As Ron said in a documentary released that year, “Let me try anything I can get my hands on. Because if it kills me, at least I died trying.”