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Ward 5B: How Nurses Defied Convention to Care for HIV/AIDS Patients

At the dawn of the AIDS epidemic —when no one knew how the disease spread and diagnosis was considered terminal — the nurses in San Francisco General Hospital’s HIV/AIDS Ward 5B defied convention, found an innovative way to improve care and treated AIDS patients with compassion.

In the early 1980’s, young men began coming into hospitals with uncommon medical conditions and depleted immune systems. The medical community began calling the condition Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or “AIDS.” Before the virus was identified, people often referred to HIV/AIDS as the “gay cancer” because the main population initially affected by the disease were gay men. As more men, hemophiliacs, and intravenous drug users began getting admitted into hospitals, stigmas began to develop. But the stigma around the disease wasn’t limited to the general public, it also permeated healthcare systems around the world. Many healthcare workers were afraid to touch patients diagnosed with AIDS, sometimes refusing to provide treatment. Even as more information about the virus was discovered, patients were often isolated at their last stages of life, receiving reluctant treatment by healthcare professionals who hid behind layers of protective clinical uniforms.

In 1987, Princess Diana of Wales opened the United Kingdom’s first purpose-built HIV/AIDS unit. While visiting the unit, she took a groundbreaking step to dispel misinformation about the disease by shaking the hand of a man who was HIV positive without gloves to prove the virus could not be spread through casual contact. [1] While her actions made a difference in debunking stigma about the virus, it wasn’t the first time people were taking a compassionate approach to treating AIDS patients. Years before, at San Francisco General Hospital, a group of nurses and other healthcare professionals came together to create Ward 5B, the first HIV/AIDS unit in the United States developing an innovative model of compassionate treatment approaches for patients.

In a compelling new documentary commissioned by Johnson & Johnson to be released on June 14, 5B tells the story of the controversial Ward 5B unit at San Francisco General Hospital. The story is told through the first-person testimony of the nurses and healthcare professionals who envisioned and ran it, and the many patients they helped through their innovative approach to patient care.

Ward 5B was founded in 1983 by nurse Cliff Morrison , during a time when no one knew how AIDS was contracted or spread, and fear, homophobia, and paranoia spread around the world. As the number of patients diagnosed with the virus grew, the severity of the situation became palpable. David Denmark, one of the nurses of Ward 5B remarked, “This is a medical disaster.” [2] In the face of this epidemic, Morrison knew that more had to be done to help those diagnosed with the disease.

With no cure in sight and the federal government slow to react to the crisis, the nurses on Ward 5B answered the call to provide care to patients affected by the virus who were marginalized by society and shunned even by their families. This influenced the nurses of Ward 5B to change their perception of what it meant to treat a patient. “You had to get out of the mode that you were here for curing people; and really get into the mode that you were here to care for people,” said Ward 5B nurse Mary Magee.

The nurses on Ward 5B did just that—they created an environment of care and compassion for the patients in their ward. They took off their gloves and provided patients with a human touch, showing many that the virus could not be spread through casual contact. They made a warm, home-like environment for patients when until then, AIDS patients were usually isolated. As some healthcare workers wore heavy protective gear referred to as “space suits” when caring for AIDS patients, the nurses of 5B adopted a more intimate bedside standard of care for the patients. In a New York Times article highlighting the ward, patient John Lere said “he’d stay home and die if he couldn’t come here” and that his primary care nurse was like “having a Mom at home.” [3]

These nurses created a ward filled with compassion and care in the midst of a controversial public health crisis. Not only did the nurses strive to create a compassionate environment, but they also recognized a need to take a multidisciplinary approach to treating their patients both medically and humanely. Morrison recalls his mindset at the time- “If we can’t save these folks, we are going to touch them. You were allowed to love your patients.”

Ultimately, the compassionate care first practiced in Ward 5B changed the way healthcare professionals and the world approached caring for HIV/AIDS patients. Nurses showed that you didn’t have to hide behind heavy clinical gear while treating AIDS patients or burn their beds when they passed away. Ward 5B pioneered a humane way to care for HIV/AIDS patients long before antiretrovirals and other treatments became widely available. By pushing back against stigma, the Ward 5B nurses showed the world the power of compassionate care and exemplified the profound impact nurses have on transforming human health.

The film 5B was proudly commissioned by Johnson & Johnson as part of its 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 .

5B opened on June 14 in select theaters across the United States. Watch the trailer for the film here and find a theater near you.

[1] How Princess Diana changed attitudes to AIDS. (2017, April 05). Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/av/magazine-39490507/how-princess-diana-changed-attitudes-to-aids
[2] Krauss, D. (Director). (2019). 5B [Video file]. Retrieved from http://5bfilm.com/
[3] Bishop, K. (1985, December 14). WARD 5B: A MODEL OF CARE FOR AIDS. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1985/12/14/us/ward-5b-a-model-of-care-for-aids.html

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