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A second son in Ray family ill from AIDS

Like any teenager with such a prospect, Robert Ray was eager to begin his first job this week at Walt Disney World.

"He just wants his own money to blow on buying a stereo system or whatever," said his mother, Louise.

But instead of reporting for work as a custodian at Disney, the 17-year-old was at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg Wednesday, undergoing a blood transfusion in an attempt to increase his hemoglobin count and shore up his body against AIDS.

He and his brothers, Ricky and Randy, were exposed to the virus that causes AIDS through contaminated blood products used to treat their hemophilia. Ricky, the oldest brother, died from AIDS complications in 1992 at age 15.

Robert's hospitalization is the latest medical setback he has endured since January. Until then, he had nine years of relatively good health and had not been hospitalized since he was 5.

"He's had all those years of being healthy," Clifford Ray, Robert's father, said at the hospital. Robert has declined to talk to reporters.

"I don't think he's accepted the fact that he's sick now," Ray said. "He's trying to act like nothing's wrong. He's kind of in denial."

Ray said doctors have told him his son could live a few more years, "or he could get an infection and that's it."

Robert, 5-foot-7, has dropped from 150 pounds in January to about 125 pounds today. He has had three bouts of pneumonia. He spent a week at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., in May and has been at All Children's since June 20.

Today, Robert is scheduled to undergo surgery to have a port implanted into his chest. The port will make it easier to receive medicines intravenously.

Robert's decline, which was not made public until this week, has prompted the Ray family to move from Orlando, where they have lived for three years, back to Sarasota, where they still own a home.

Their drive to All Children's from Sarasota is 35 or 40 minutes instead of the 2{ hours it takes to get to the hospital from Orlando.

The family fled to Sarasota from Arcadia in 1987 after DeSoto County refused to allow the boys to attend school and an arsonist torched their home. The events focused worldwide attention on the boys.

Both Robert and Randy have told their parents they wanted to be cared for at All Children's Hospital and by their longtime physician, Jerry Barbosa, instead of being treated in Orlando.

Randy, 16, remains healthy and is working at Disney this summer. He is staying with relatives. "He's as strong as a horse," Mrs. Ray said.

The boys' sister, Candy, 14, is not infected with the virus. Her parents say Robert's hospitalization has stirred memories of Ricky's death. "She called us the other night crying after seeing videos of Ricky," Mrs. Ray said.

Louise and Clifford, both 37, have quit their jobs in Orlando. She was a licensed practical nurse at a nursing home and he was a corrections officer. In Sarasota, Louise plans to return to nursing and Clifford hopes to become a truck driver.

Robert still faces a charge of sexual battery in Orlando after being accused of performing a lewd act on a 15-year-old girl in February 1994. Since then, he has quit school and is trying to get his GED.

His parents say he is trying to negotiate a plea on the charge. "It's not because he's guilty of it," Clifford Ray said. "He's sick and he wants it off his back."

The couple said they long ago gave up dwelling on what the future may bring for their sons.

"It's today what we think about," Ray said. "We know we're going to lose him, but we also believe that when we pass on we will rejoin him."