Living into the Lessons of 5B with HIV/AIDS Nurse Guy Vandenberg
In the 1980s, when most of the world regarded HIV and AIDS patients with fear and prejudice, it was nurses who defied convention and embraced patients with compassionate care. Their brave and then-controversial actions revolutionized patient care beyond the AIDS epidemic, and 5B, a compelling new documentary commissioned by Johnson & Johnson, tells the story of the patients, nurses and healthcare staff who worked in San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH)’s Ward 5B, the first unit dedicated to HIV/AIDS care in America.
Featured in the documentary is Guy Vandenberg, RN, one of the resilient nurses who worked in a local San Francisco hospice and later the expansion of Ward 5B, Ward 5A, to treat and care for the AIDS patients in the trenches of the epidemic. The Johnson & Johnson Notes on Nursing team recently sat down with Guy to learn more about his experience as a nurse in Ward 5A, what he believes are the biggest takeaways from the documentary and how we can better embrace today’s “untouchables” in healthcare.
Because of my skills working in hospice, I was recruited to come and work as a nurse in Ward 5A in 1995, which at that time had garnered a lot of national attention. Ward 5B had grown so rapidly during the 1980s that it had to expand to Ward 5A, so that’s where I worked. A lot of the groundwork for how we were embracing HIV/AIDS patients had been laid by Cliff Morrison and Alison Moed Paolercio, and the nurses on their team during those early days, and it was an honor to continue carrying out their vision.
 Nurse Cliff Morrison founded Ward 5B in 1983 and Alison Moed Paolercio was the ward’s first nurse manager. Both are featured in the documentary 5B.
Not all patients were easy- many who had been disenfranchised and discriminated against were angry that they had to battle this. But we all knew that is part of the job, and it was a privilege to be there at that time and provide care to all of the patients who needed us.
 Mary Magee was a nurse in Ward 5B, who was later revealed as the anonymous nurse who contracted HIV in the ward following an accidental needle stick.
 ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) is an international, grassroots organization that worked towards combating the AIDS pandemic through direct action, medical research, treatment and advocacy from the 1980s to the 2000s.
And I think nurses are innovative, but they don’t always feel empowered to take the lead. I’d love for nurses to feel emboldened to share their great ideas. Nurses know what they should be doing, that what is in their gut is often right. It’s so important that we have each other for feedback and to discuss solutions because we can’t innovate alone, it happens when we work as a team. It’s hard to do in a busy setting, but hopefully those in management can build in time for nurses to connect and strategize together because it’s important.
I currently work in SFGH’s Ward 86, an outpatient HIV/AIDS clinic, and nurses have started all the important programs there. It was the nurses’ idea to create a reproductive health and women’s clinic there. It was a nurse’s idea to create a program in Africa for HIV/ AIDS prevention. My husband, Steve, and I worked with this program for almost 10 years and he’s able to share the importance of preventative care because he tells people, “My name is Steve, I have HIV and I’m healthy because I take these medications.” It makes a world of difference, and it was all a nurse’s idea.
Above all, I want nurses to take care of themselves. Many of our colleagues suffered alone, and I lost a good number of them to suicide, depression and overdose because they felt isolated during this time, and it was so unnecessary. Today’s nurses should continue to stand up for each other and to nurture the relationships they have with their team.
Many things that were considered impossible before the HIV/AIDS epidemic are now considered standard. Who we considered to be a patient’s family member was revolutionary in those days, as was bringing in food from the outside into the hospital setting. How we frame conversations when telling a patient their diagnosis has changed. New hospital rooms are being built large enough to accommodate loved ones so they can stay with the patient, something we showed the importance of. Above all, the crisis encouraged more dialogue and patient-centered, relationship-centered care.
I also think more people believe healthcare is a human right than ever before, to every member of our species, even those who you might not have a natural affinity with. There’s still a lot of work to be done to address racial health disparities, but we are moving in the right direction.
 San Francisco AIDS Foundation. (2019). Resource: HIV & Hep C Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.sfaf.org/resource-library/hiv-hep-c-statistics/
I also think our mindset has changed in many ways. In the early days, it was a crisis and we were alternating between our hospice and ICU skills, palliative care and high-level interventions. With new technologies and antiviral therapies, HIV and AIDS has shifted to a manageable disease. Today, nurses believe one day there will be a cure, it doesn’t feel like a far-off dream anymore.
 Association of Nurses in AIDS Care. (2017). Global. Retrieved from https://www.nursesinaidscare.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageID=4708
The HIV/AIDS crisis has historically had a lot of links to racism and societal economic access to healthcare, seen mostly with gay or bisexual African American men, and if the disease affected a different group of people I believe the situation would be very different. Access to care can be a vehicle for people’s prejudice, and the stigmas are still prevalent today. While it has improved for many who are battling AIDS, it makes one really think about who are today’s “untouchables” in society.
Initially, I was very nervous about seeing the film for the first time. But it’s such a relief that the film is evocative and doesn’t focus solely on the past. We’ve been traveling the country with the film, and after the screenings, most people in the audience have said this film isn't about the past, it’s about what people can do now, because our work is far from over.
I knew the film was going to be a big hit at indie film festivals, but I didn’t expect the incredible response we’ve received. We’ve all been asked to do so many interviews, and we were all invited to Cannes to be on the red carpet with A-list celebrities. It’s been absolutely surreal. I hope people leave the film feeling more ambitious, that everyone can do something, and that more people feel inspired and drawn to enter the nursing profession, because we greatly need more nurses, and it’s such a rewarding experience.
The film 5B was proudly commissioned by Johnson & Johnson as part of our longstanding commitment to the support of nurses at the frontlines of patient care. Through the development of advanced therapies and together with our partners, Johnson & Johnson is also deeply committed to the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS. Be on the lookout for special moments featuring 5B and its amazing nurses later this month on September 28 at Global Citizen 2019 in New York City.
(Pictured above is Guy working as a nurse in 1994 at SFGH's Ward 5A, Guy on a Pride float for Coming Home Hospice in 1992, and Guy and his husband, Steve, at a protest in 1995. Steve is a HIV/AIDS survivor who was also a patient in Ward 5B.)