A new documentary tells the story of America’s first inpatient unit at San Francisco Hospital dedicated to the care of patients with AIDS. Nurse Cliff Morrison helped create Ward “5B” in 1983, and worked with Dr. Paul Volberding to give patients compassionate care.
I listened to Terry Gross’ interview of Morrison and Volberding on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air. Their experiences with this new “disease” brought back memories of my first dealing with an AIDS patient. When AIDS became known in the ‘80’s, even those in the medical field did not understand the complexity of this deadly disease. People were unenlightened and scared.
Cliff Morrison remembers being appalled by what he saw happening at the Hospital: “I would go in patients’ rooms and you could tell that they hadn’t had a bath,” he says. “They weren’t being taken care of.” At the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, the disease was considered a death sentence. No one was sure what caused it or how it was spread. Some doctors and nurses refused to treat patients with the disease; others protected themselves by wearing full body suits.
Morrison organized a team of healthcare providers to open Ward 5B at San Francisco Hospital. This medical team encouraged patients to make their rooms like home, and allowed families and partners to visit whenever they could. They comforted patients by touching them, and would even sneak in pets.
Dr. Volberding talked about his own struggle with AIDS. He said that he wasn’t worried about himself; his nightmare was the possibility of passing the disease onto his children. He had two young sons. The medical field knew that someone could contract AIDS through bodily fluids but they did not know what that included: kissing, touching, hugging? No! They didn’t know what we know now.
Today, antiretroviral medicines allow people with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to live long, productive lives. The fear in dealing with AIDS patients is no longer a serious problem.