Nursing & Healthcare News

The Nurses of Ward 5B

Documentary about pioneering San Francisco AIDS unit

Thirty-six years ago, nurses in San Francisco established the country’s first specialized AIDS unit. A new documentary film, 5B, tells their story.

The First Step

When nurses at San Francisco General Hospital established Ward 5B in July 1983, an epidemic was devastating the Bay Area’s LGBT community: a mysterious autoimmune disease with bizarre symptoms and a 100 percent fatality rate.

AIDS patients faced severe stigma. Clinicians and support staff were often reluctant to provide care or even basic hospital housekeeping due to fear of contagion, homophobia or both.

Clinical nurse specialist Cliff Morrison, RN, BSN, MBA/MPH, M.S., then the director of the hospital’s forensic psychiatry program, recalls that he was “more pissed off and angry than scared” by the situation. He and 11 other SF General nurses volunteered to establish a new unit, Ward 5B, specifically for treating patients with AIDS.

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At first, the Ward 5B staff wasn’t even sure how big a risk they were taking; the epidemiology of HIV was still a question mark. Even when it became clear that the infection risk was relatively low, the work took a huge emotional toll. All the staff could really provide was palliative care for the dying.

The nurses soon discovered that there were political consequences as well. Staff members in other units were alarmed by the presence of AIDS patients in the hospital.

“Some of the nurses refused to give care,” recalls retired 5B nurse Alison Moed Paolercio. Others demanded the right to wear masks and protective gear for any contact with AIDS patients.

Nursing Education

After a staff member was infected through a needle stick, several nurses took their complaints to the union, the press and the California Division of Labor Standards. One nurse even accused the Ward 5B nurses of having a “homosexual hierarchy” that provided “preferential treatment for AIDS patients.” The union and the labor board eventually rejected these complaints, but it was a long and bitter battle.

Philanthropic Effort

Distributed by Verizon Media and co-directed by Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis, 5B uses a combination of present-day interviews and archival footage. Today, antiretroviral drugs can completely suppress the virus, making it untransmittable, but HIV persists. 5B is both a powerful testament to what nursing can achieve and a sobering reminder of the price nurses must sometimes pay for those efforts.

To learn more or find a screening, visit A portion of the documentary’s proceeds will be donated to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria via the film’s partner, (RED).

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