Guy Vandenberg, RN, MSW, speaks glowingly of his time practicing on the world's first special care unit dedicated to caring for patients with HIV/AIDS. The ward opened in San Francisco General Hospital's Ward 5B in 1983 and had moved to a larger ward, 5A, by the time Vandenberg arrived in the 1990s as a per diem nurse. At that time, people were still dying fighting a disease that had no cure.
"It was a combination of trying to cure what we could cure and providing palliative care to patients who couldn't be cured," Vandenberg said in a recent interview.
Vandenberg and other nurses and caregivers who played a role in creating and nurturing the ward in the 1980s and 1990s tell their powerful stories in a new documentary, 5B. Made by filmmakers Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss, the film was acquired by Verizon Media and is slated for an exclusive screening during the opening festivities at LA Pride Weekend in West Hollywood on Friday, June 7. It will then hit select theaters nationwide on June 14. The documentary will give a portion of its proceeds to The Global Fund.
For Vandenberg, working on the ward was a freeing, rewarding experience. Then in 1999, his husband, Steve Williams, was diagnosed with HIV and was soon hospitalized in the ward.
"I had been working in HIV [care] for a number of years at that time, and I had this idea that somehow people close to me should be exempted," Vandenberg said. "Of course, it doesn't work that way."
While his husband was ill, Vandenberg would work on the opposite side of the ward to where Williams was staying.
"It's not a good situation when you work in the same place where they're taking care of your loved ones," Vandenberg said. "The nurses were very supportive and kept me updated and involved, but obviously I couldn't take direct care of him."
Vandenberg's husband was comatose in the ward for 2 months and almost died, but he survived over the course of several months of treatment, which had become more advanced.
On days when his husband was very sick or anxious, the nurses would prepare a cot for Vandenberg next to his husband's bed. In Ward 5B, family members and loved ones could stay overnight, and the ward recognized same-sex visiting rights, he said.
"We did things differently," he said. "We redefined what was family. People who weren't biologically related or married would be turned away [in other hospitals]. The administration and management left nurses to figure that out and gave us the freedom to create that space where nurses and social workers on staff could make it work."
The documentary shares the stories of those who created and worked on the unit and the patients who lived and died there. Cliff Morrison, a program director at the hospital, had become frustrated at the lack of care and humanity that patients with HIV/AIDS were receiving in the early 1980s. He spearheaded the effort to create Ward 5B. Alison Moed, one of the original 12 nurses who launched the unit, later became the ward's nurse manager. LGBTQ activist Rita Rockett first visited the ward to visit a close friend and soon started the ward's longtime tradition of hosting weekly brunches and entertainment for its patients.
The ward's caregivers did what they could to make their patients feel comfortable. They threw parties for patients and allowed pets to visit. They carried out a caring model that would later be studied and modeled in hospitals around the globe.
Then there were patients like George Kelly and Williams, whose health rapidly deteriorated before improved medical treatments would save their lives. The film also shares the perspective of Harry Breaux, who watched as his dying friends and loved ones were treated with acceptance, compassion, and love in 5B.
At the same time, the ward's caregivers had to put their prejudices aside, Vandenberg said.
"It wasn't just about gay men," Vandenberg said. "We had a lot of injection drug users, homeless folks, people coming out of prison. Once you do confront own hang-ups, it is so freeing. It's incredibly rewarding to help somebody in a difficult time, to help somebody restore their dignity.
"Ideally, you want to restore their health. But if that's not possible, be there," he added. "Touch people. Alleviate what you can."
The ward eventually closed as continued advancements in HIV treatment lessened the need for an inpatient HIV/AIDs ward. The hospital, now named Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, now runs an outpatient HIV clinic, where Vandenberg works as an HIV clinical specialist. There, he coordinates care, provides triage and urgent care, conducts a monthly Reproductive Health Clinic for those affected by HIV, and facilitates the clinic's Opiate Prescribing and Pain Management Committee.
Although the documentary tells the story of a ward that opened four decades ago, Vandenberg stresses that 5B gives its viewers a lesson on the present day.
"This isn't a story about the past," Vandenberg said. "This is about now. Many patients either don't know that they're living with HIV or aren't accessing care. We need to reach them so they know that lifesaving care is there. We have a lot of work to do."
You can watch the official trailer for the film here, and check local theaters to see if it's playing in your area.