Celebrating A Team Of Nurses
Reporter – Julia Pinney
June 26, 2019
The film “5B” premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and was released in theatres June 14. Through archival footage, photos, and interviews with doctors, nurses, AIDS survivors, and activists, it tells the story of Ward 5B at San Francisco General Hospital. Opened on July 25th, 1983, this was the only unit in the United States solely dedicated to the care of HIV/AIDS patients. The documentary, directed by Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis, is simultaneously a celebration of a team of nurses who made this unit the special place it was and a reminder of this dark period in US history in which homophobia impacted the care of HIV-infected patients.
In one of 5B’s most moving scenes, Alison Moed, former nurse manager for San Francisco General’s Ward 5B flips through the book in which she and her fellow nurses would record the names of those who had died in their care. With each turn of a page and each passing year of the AIDS epidemic, the handwriting gets smaller, and the pages get fuller. For Moed, these names are a record of the lives her nursing team touched when many others were too paralyzed by fear or bias to do the same.
“Gay Cancer” In The News
San Francisco in the 1970s was the epicenter of the gay liberation movement, where same-sex couples went out in public holding hands as a sign of love, as well as protest. But as one AIDS survivor said in his interview, 1981 was when everything changed. Doctors reported gay men in San Francisco and New York were contracting pneumocystis pneumonia, a rare form of pneumonia that generally only afflicts immunocompromised patients, and Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer.
The New York Times published the first article reporting the outbreak of a new disease afflicting primarily gay men who were sexually active. The term “gay cancer” proliferated in the news, creating a link between the disease and homosexuality.
Fear Within Hospitals & Gay Community
Fear and hopelessness were present in San Francisco’s gay community and hospitals alike. David Denmark, a Ward 5B nurse, described how within the gay community you would watch friends turn to skin and bones and then die within weeks. The hospital staff was terrified of catching it. Nurses unaware of how the disease spread would spend time putting on extensive protective gear before entering a patient’s room. They let their patients sit in soiled beds in order to delay coming in contact with the disease for as long as possible. Breakfast trays would pile up in the hallways because support staff refused to deliver them.
Nurses Pioneer The Opening Of Ward 5B
Ward 5B emerged in 1983, pioneered by Cliff Morrison, a clinical nurse specialist, and other nurses who believed that the San Francisco gay community deserved better. As San Francisco General’s ICU units filled with AIDS patients, Morrison was approached by the director of nursing about creating a dedicated unit for them. He would bring AIDS patients to the future location of Ward 5B in wheelchairs and asked them what they wanted for their care.
Morrison wrote in an essay for Johnson & Johnson (who commissioned the documentary) that men told him they wanted to be treated with dignity and compassion.
“The first thing I heard was: ‘I want to feel like I’m being treated like a person.’ They said, ‘I want people who are not afraid of me. I want people to touch me,’” Morrison wrote.
Nurse Moed said in an interview with Refinery29 that the inappropriate conduct of the nurses around her at best could have been attributed to fear of an unknown disease, but at worst due to fear of the gay community which in turn fueled ignorance about the disease. She said watching how AIDS patients were treated aroused a sense of injustice in her, a feeling shared by many fellow nurses who would volunteer to work on Ward 5B. Many of them were connected to the gay community, either identifying as gay themselves or having friends who were gay. Moed told Refinery29 that some of her best friends were in the gay community, and it motivated her to put an end to the insensitive care she saw as motivated by homophobia. “Somewhere in me was the feeling that, if I participated in the fight for better care, we’d be putting an end to this,” Moed said. (Refinery29.com is a website targeted mainly to millennial women.)
“I felt as though I was protecting and taking care of people who were dear to me, and by extension their community.”
It Was About Caring, Not Curing
It would be nearly 15 years before an effective drug regimen would be discovered, and Moed described how there was an acceptance that everyone on the ward was going to die. And so, in the absence of the ability to cure, the nurses on Ward 5B cared.
One of the most meaningful and radical ways to care was by touching their patients without gloves and abstaining from wearing extensive protective gear in an effort to make them feel less ostracized. They held their hands and washed them, in the process giving them back a dose of humanity previously stripped from them.
Every other Sunday, Rita Rockett, a local travel agent, and entertainer visited the ward and put on a brunch. Sometimes her tap dancing friends were in tow. Rita said the only thing she regretted is that she didn’t put on a brunch every Sunday. (View video to see Rita Rockett in action.)
Patients Designated Their Families
The nurses recognized that many of the patients were isolated from their families or had long-term, though not legal, partners. Clinical nurse specialist Morrison wrote that the unit allowed patients to create their own family made up of friends and partners. The ward truly welcomed loved ones into their patients’ care, and Ward 5B was one of the first units in the country that allowed visitors at any time.
Homophobia & The AIDS Epidemic
In 5B a nurse said about the ward, “It was a wonderful place where you could go to die — but it doesn’t take away from the fact that they died.” Krauss and Haggis easily could have solely focused on the former sentiment, but instead made the important choice to place the safe haven of the ward within a greater context of government ignorance and homophobia.
A majority of the public and even members of San Francisco General saw HIV as a threat. Yet, in 1984, scientists determined that it could not be passed through casual contact. Four nurses at San Francisco General sued the hospital for not allowing them to wear masks and gloves when treating HIV-infected patients. Grace Lusby, San Francisco General’s infection control coordinator, justified the policy in a 1985 San Francisco Chronicle article. “All the masks do is raise the hysteria level among hospital personnel and the patients,” Lusby said.
Another nurse said she was forced to put herself at risk because of policies established by gay nurses in Ward 5B.
Opposition Both Within & Outside The Hospital
And some of the most vocal opposition from within came from the Chief of Orthopedic Surgery, Lorraine Day. She is seen in news footage justifying her support of patients being tested for HIV without their consent by comparing HIV to a loaded gun. And outside the hospital walls, in a Los Angeles Times poll, 51% of Americans felt it necessary to quarantine those infected with HIV. Some men suspected as gay and infected with HIV were kicked out of their apartments and fired from their jobs. In one instance, their desks were taken to a parking lot and set on fire. Insurance companies were screening out gay men to deny coverage to by sending out surveys asking if they worked as a florist or a hairdresser. 5B effectively shows how the HIV epidemic was a platform on which homophobia flourished.
Reagan Administration Failed To Recognize AIDS
And the documentary reminds the viewer of the Reagan administration’s failure in dealing with the AIDS crisis, through the telling of Hank Plante, an openly gay television reporter who was on the front lines of reporting the epidemic. He points out that Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s AIDS budget for San Francisco for two years in the mid-’80s was larger than President Reagan’s was for the entire nation. And in one of his most powerful interviews Plante just barely contains his anger as he recounts that it wasn’t until 1987 that President Ronald Reagan said the word “AIDS” out loud in a speech, and how he wished he could have stood up at that moment and told the president of the thousands and thousands of people who had already died.
Accidental Needle Stick Infects Nurse
One of the most dramatic and heartbreaking moments of 5B is when a nurse becomes infected with AIDS after an accidental needle stick. 5B tackles the belief that she, and fellow nurses, were angels of mercy risking infection by “scuzzies,” as one nurse quips. As the infected nurse, Mary Magee, powerfully said, “Disease doesn’t care.” In this statement lies a point of tension in 5B. The documentary doesn’t hide the fear felt by the nurses as they embarked on creating the ward. One nurse recalled how he and his wife couldn’t even talk about the fact that there was no guarantee that he wasn’t going to contract the disease.
Human Beings Extending Their Hands
Nurses have a duty of care to their patients. This was how Cliff Morrison summed up the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (Cal-OSHA) ruling in the nurses’ lawsuit. The state agency found San Francisco General’s policies for the care of AIDS patients followed the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and the state of California AIDS Task Force. The court deemed that the nurses ethically could not place personal desires before the emotional and physical needs of their patients.
In caring for the gay men who came through their ward, the nurses of Ward 5B were just doing their job. But they were also granting their patients the dignity they and everyone deserves. 5B asks the viewer to recognize the power of countering discrimination through connection. Alison Moed told Refinery29 she hoped viewers realize everyone has the power to help vulnerable populations, whether that be racial minorities or women seeking abortions.
“You just have to start on a human level, from your heart,” Moed said.
The nurses of Ward 5B were not angels of mercy, but human beings extending their hand to another and inviting others to do the same. Their message resonated.
Four years after Ward 5B opened, on April 19, 1987, Princess Diana arrived at London Middlesex Hospital to open the UK’s first unit dedicated to treating people with AIDS. Diana reached out and shook hands with patients with no gloves.