The Subversive Nurses and the Dying, in 5B

AIDS aides: Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss’ documentary tells the story of the plague years from the perspective of San Francisco General Hospital’s enlightened ward.

After almost 40 years of HIV/AIDS, now that the visibility of the virus has largely receded from America, it’s easy to think of the afflicted largely as pitiable symbols of a regrettable era of hysteria. Sure, the famous ones had individuality, and maybe even agency. But beyond Ryan White and Gaëtan Dugas and Freddie Mercury and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Prior Walter and Nancy Reagan and Rock Hudson and all the other names associated with the plague, it’s easy to forget one thing: People who contracted HIV grew ill, very ill.

They weren’t mere statistical vectors of disease. They weren’t just panels-to-be in a quilt. They were human beings who were physically sick, and although their symptoms may have been medically complicated, their needs often were not. They needed to be fed. They needed their bed linens changed. They needed human touch. They didn’t always get these things. Many of them died alone and in pain, feared and reviled.

Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss’ quietly searing documentary 5B looks at one particularly broad-minded period in the history of HIV/AIDS in San Francisco, when a group of nurses — supported by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — persuaded the administration of San Francisco General Hospital to authorize them to run the U.S.’s first ward dedicated to AIDS patients. Starting in July 1983, at a time when researchers had not yet established that HIV is neither transmissible by air nor spread through casual contact, these nurses banded together to provide essential care to a widely despised population. They gave people a dignified place to die — and, in those days, many of them died only months after their initial diagnosis.

5B contains plenty of familiar tropes: the raucous 1970s montage (here set to Blondie), the defiant I’m-gonna-beat-this pronouncements, the archival footage of a visibly uncomfortable Ronald Reagan, the stern medical press conference. But by foregrounding a dying man, breathing with the assistance of an oxygen tube, who says he’s had no contact with another human being, the film tells a crucial chapter in the history of the fight against AIDS. These were caregivers who stayed up until dawn with patients battling night sweats did so without protective gloves. That was a loving act, but also a political one.

By allowing anyone to visit the ward — blood relation or otherwise — SFGH’s Ward 5B illustrated Armistead Maupin’s principle of the “logical family” versus the “biological family,” the people who really love you. The nurses let in pets; they let in lovers. Beyond the remarkable absence of red tape, the ward occasionally seemed almost — almost — fun. Volunteers like The Godfathers and roller-skating “brunch goddess” Rita Rockett helped keep people’s spirits up. But, as one nurse puts it, just because it was a wonderful place to die doesn’t mean it wasn’t still a place of death.

It was a stressful place, too. Nurses burned out quickly, especially as the magnitude of the epidemic became apparent. The hospital got sucked into the culture wars, as a faction of medical professionals balked at the “special treatment” — familiar phrasing, ain’t it? — that the AIDS patients received. The entire holistic model of care was threatened by a lawsuit over a proposal to pay the 5B nurses more — something many of them vocally opposed, preferring instead to redirect any surplus funds into the ward itself.

“They said, ‘Fuck you, we don’t want your money. What we want is to not have too many patients to care for,’ ” 5B subject and nurse Sasha Cuttler told SF Weekly. “From that was born the first nurse-patient ratios that were ever put into a union contract.”

However enlightened some of these outcomes may have been, 5B refuses to let California rest on its progressive laurels entirely. Medical-privacy laws forbade asking people point-blank if they were gay, so questionnaires inquired if you’d ever worked as a florist, a hairdresser, or a decorator. Although not everyone is always put in the fullest context, we hear from Dr. Julie Gerberding, then at UCSF and later head of the CDC, as figures such as William F. Buckley and homophobic SoCal Congressmen like William Dannemeyer function as boogeymen in the periphery. Dr. Lorraine Day, one of very few women trained as orthopedic surgeons in the 1980s, is the closest thing 5B has to a true villain. She mars what could have been a neutral, scientifically grounded case for protective measures like “spacesuits” with lots of gay-baiting dog whistles, at a time when HIV-positive people were fired and had their desks burned in a corporate parking lot and the president of the federal AIDS Commission wouldn’t shake an AIDS patient’s hand. (Day later married Congressman Dannemeyer.)

Viewers can palpalbly sense the narrative impulses of filmmakers Haggis (Crash, Casino Royale) and Krauss (O.J.: Made in America). Whether you approve of a documentary making use of a technique usually found in page-turners and suspense movies is up to you, but 5B contains a twist involving a nurse named Jane Doe and an unfortunate needle stick. This could come off as a rather crass way of ginning up drama, but Jane Doe — along with Cuttler, another UCSF nurse — emphasized that their purpose was “holding back the world, trying to protect this space.” And they may have a form of survivor’s guilt, or at least a discomfort over telling the stories of an institution in which they played only a small role.

These nurses dealt with plenty of blowback, not the least of which was hate mail after a favorable People profile. As 5B tells it, the ward was complicated, messy, and short-lived. (It closed in 2003.) But its purpose was ultimately very simple. As one nurse put it, “People died. But we made a difference in the way they died.”

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