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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

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In the 1980's some doctors and nurses refused to treat patients with AIDS

In the 1980's some doctors and nurses refused to treat patients with AIDS

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 1980's, 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. We also know that transmission is limited to sexual activity and blood contamination. The fear in dealing with AIDS patients is no longer a serious problem.

In the late 80's I was asked to go to someone’s home to give a person with AIDS the Sacrament of the Sick. I heard of AIDS but like most people, I did not know all the effects of the virus. I knew it was deadly and that this person was probably going to die.

Much misinformation and homophobic fears were going around. A well-known priest from New Orleans wrote that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexual behavior. I admit I was fearful but I also knew that I had to be Christ to this person and his family. I asked myself, what would Jesus do?

The AIDS in Jesus’ day was leprosy. In Matthew’s gospel the author tells us how Jesus dealt with this fearful disease.

“A leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.’ He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately his leprosy was cleansed.” (Matt. 8:2-3)

I thought about this passage and concluded that I needed to treat this person like Jesus would. So when I went to his home, I tried to put aside my fears. I wanted to treat this person as a human being who needed God’s healing. We talked for a while and then I administered the Sacrament of the Sick.

Part of the ceremony involves putting my hands on the person’s head and silently calling down God’s healing power. Then I anointed his head and hands with the Oil of the Sick. He eventfully died but the purpose of the Sacrament is not only for physical healing but for emotional and spiritual healings. He thanked me by giving me some artistic images he had made.

This experience has made me a more compassionate person!