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Ryan White Voices

A Safe Haven for Patients

Cliff envisioned Ward 5B/5A as...a place where they would not be treated like pariahs

“The hospital administration was under intense pressure to do something, and they were relieved that someone had stepped up to the plate.”

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Cliff Morrison: Continued

“I was so fed up with health care and with nursing and with the whole bureaucracy,” Cliff remembers, “that I didn’t give a damn if I ever worked in health care again. It was so hierarchal, so traditional, so white-male dominated. Patient’s had no rights, and the nurses were just peons. We were really nothing but glorified slaves.”

He can’t remember the first time he heard about the disease that would one day be called AIDS, but by 1981 he was meeting nurses like Angie Lewis and Helen Schietinger, head nurse of the Karposi’s Sarcoma Clinic at University of California at San Francisco. “The gay community was in complete denial about AIDS at that point,” he remembers. “People giggled about it and said ‘Oh, it won’t happen to me.’”

“I was called downstairs to the critical care unit because they had these patients. The nursing staff and the medical staff had never seen anything like it—not only the physical but the emotional aspects.” Cliff sensed that this mysterious illness was going to become a big problem, and he knew that he had to do something. Someone had to stand up for AIDS patients and their rights. Cliff attended seminars and took every training class he could find. And when he was given an opportunity to make a difference, he took it.

They Did Not Die Peacefully

By late 1981, San Francisco General’s critical care units were filling up with men presenting with Pneumocystis carinii (PCP). By the end of 1982, it was not unusual for every bed in the intensive care unit to be taken by patients with PCP.

Eighty-five percent of the patients that came into San Francisco General that year with a diagnosis of PCP died from it. They did not die peacefully. They faced a medical staff that discriminated against them and feared them. They were lonely. They were terrified. They were in pain. And some were even refused medical care.

“You know, this is getting completely out of control here,” Cliff remembers saying to his supervisor in the fall of 1982. “We are getting more and more patients with this disease. They [are not allowed] out of their rooms … and staff refuse to enter. Their food is left cold at the door. Their rooms are never cleaned. We may be able to address the clinical issues, but nobody’s addressing all the other problems. The critical care unit can’t handle them. We need some sort of coordination.”

Cliff envisioned Ward 5B/5A as a safe haven for patients living with this new disease, where they knew they would be treated compassionately by people who wanted to care for them—a place where they would receive their meals while still hot, a place where they would not be treated like pariahs. 

Overwhelming Need Trumps Professional Suicide

Some of Cliff’s friends told him that it would be professional suicide to take on a position where he was identified as working with AIDS patients. But Cliff didn’t see professional oblivion. He saw overwhelming need. When, to his surprise, his supervisor said, “Come back to me next week, and we will make a proposal to the administration,” Cliff set to work. And when he met with his boss again a few days later, he had the plans for Ward 5B/5A in his hands.  

Ask Cliff about the creation of a unit where HIV/AIDS care was coordinated, and people living—and dying—with AIDS were treated with respect, and he tells you that it was a collaborative effort. And, certainly, it was. It required funding, buy-in, and staffing of likeminded people all willing to devote themselves to addressing this strange new disease.

Cliff also makes another interesting point—a point that highlights a life characterized by finding opportunities in adverse circumstances. “The hospital administration was under intense pressure to do something, and they were relieved that someone had stepped up to the plate,” Cliff says, and certainly that others were willing to join him in this valiant effort. “Looking back,” he adds, “we were allowed to do it for all the wrong reasons. But thank God we were allowed to do it. Thank God for that.”   

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