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Photo of a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt laid out on the ground.

 

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Cliff Morrison

They Did Not Die Peacefully

It’s hard to imagine that even in a place like San Francisco—a place famous for accepting gay men—people diagnosed with AIDS were feared. But in the early 1980s, the general public, including medical personnel, was in a state of panic. Cliff Morrison, a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital at the time, recalls seeing the facility’s critical care units filled to capacity with men sick with a mysterious disease.

Most received substandard treatment, as people and as patients. Doctors and nurses refused to treat them, and cleaning staff feared entering their rooms. Food staff often left patients’ trays at the door, rather than deliver them directly.

The stigmatization extended far beyond the illness itself, Cliff explains. “It was as if the door to darkness had been opened and all the taboos were out there—sex, death, homosexuality, drug use … Things that people had never heard discussed openly before.”

But Cliff did not believe that fear could ever justify what he was witnessing. Determined to make a difference, in 1983, he successfully petitioned the powers-that-be at San Francisco General to establish Ward 5B/5A. The first health facility in the U.S. dedicated to providing AIDS treatment, the ward’s coordinated approach to care became known as the “San Francisco Model,” and was soon replicated by facilities serving epicenters of the epidemic nationwide.

To understand the full story of Ward 5B/5A, one has to go back in time, before AIDS, to Live Oak, Florida, where Cliff grew up.

“I Hated Getting My Hands Dirty”

Life in Live Oak, located at the foot of the Okefenokee Swamp, was tough, even at the best of times. “We were very poor,” he says, “and lived in a shack.” As a boy he worked on the family farm to help put food on the table. No money, no car, no telephone, no television and no access to health care. And to top it all off, Cliff wasn’t cut out for farm work.

“I hated getting my hands dirty,” he explains, laughing. “It’s funny, because I love to garden now and can’t wait to get home at night to get my hands in the dirt!”

So, at age twelve, not wanting to work on the farm but realizing that he had to do something to help his family, Cliff took matters into his own hands. A friend of his mother’s worked as an administrator at the local hospital. With his mom’s encouragement, he asked her for a job. “You know my family circumstances,” Cliff remembers saying to her. “I have to work. I will do anything in this hospital that has to be done, but I must have a job.”  

Cliff started out by mopping floors, taking out the trash, working in the laundry. He worked his way up to orderly and his hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Doctors and nurses at the hospital took an interest in Cliff. They liked him and saw his potential. As Cliff grew a bit older, they encouraged him to do the unthinkable: go to college. And because they knew Cliff would need a scholarship, they helped him apply for it. Cliff Morrison entered Florida Community College in Jacksonville when he was 17 years old, the youngest student ever accepted into the nursing program and the first person in his family to attend college. It was 1969.

Aren’t Men Supposed to Be Doctors?

Cliff remembers feeling “almost ashamed or embarrassed” with the decision to enter a profession that, even though more males were becoming nurses, was still so heavily dominated by women. “But, I’ll get an associate degree in nursing,” he thought. “I can make $10,000 a year working as a nurse and with that I’ll be able to put myself through medical school.”

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