Ward 5B- San Francisco General Hospital (The First AIDS Ward)



Ladyjustice was struck by this one of a kind facility introduced historically within the new documentary/DVD “We Were There” as an interested party on many levels, LJ was fascinated by its origins “out of necessity”. Described as participants going to war… indeed the early1980’s through the1990s was a battle field with little direction- more questions than answers.

A variety of sources yielded the following facts regarding this precedent setting hospital.  References:





ü Ward 5B opened officially on july25,1983 driven by fear of a contagious disease which was escalating;

ü Nursing staff were solicited from the gay community – lesbians and many male nurses who were also infected with the AIDS virus;

ü San Francisco General became a national and international model for compassionate care with just one dozen nurses initially

ü Treatment plans were holistic in nature including psychological support for patients, families and friends;;

ü For the first time, same sex partners were welcomed and included every phase of treatment, thus advancing the civil   gay couples and re-defining the meaning of “family;”

ü Dr. Mervyn Silverman, former Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health opposed the unit…. He later said at their 20th anniversary in 2003, “Fortunately, I was proven completely wrong.”

ü City-wide, a total of 19,393 San Franciscans died from AIDS between 1981and 2003;

ü Admissions within San Francisco General from the first patient to 2003 totaled 21,500 stays;

ü Clinical research was initiated freely prior to the regulation of today including he use of medical marijuana;

ü Marijuana studies were inspired by Mary Jane Rothburn, better known as “Brownie Mary” who furnished the day clinic and AIDS in-patients with “pot-laced sweets;”

ü  Steve Keith who was a volunteer nurse on the unit for nearly 20 years became the unofficial historian/archivists, collecting files saved by head nurse, correspondence, books, other publications, videos and scrapbooks;

ü The most treasured entry-signature was that of Mother Theresa;

ü Nurse George Jalbert was the first nurse to die in 1987. Today a plaque bears the names of 42 nursing staff who succumbed to the virus;

ü With the advent of protease inhibitors (a class of anti-viral drugs that prevent the replication of HIV proteins) Ward 5A had empty beds. Therefore, they expanded treatment to include other oncology patients – 1/3Aids;1/3 oncology; 1/3 general medical patients;

ü US World &News & Report recognized SFG among the best hospitals in AIDS care from 1991-1997, with other facilities attempting to implement their model.

ü A highlight every week was the appearance of dancer and single Mom “Rita Rockett” who entertained and ultimately cooked her way into everyone’s hearts. She sponsored pot lucks, birthday, pajama parties and holiday dinners.  Rita stated, “I come from a large family. …. Whenever there is something wrong, you bring food.”

ü A 2011 Center for Disease Control report stated 1,200 million Americans are infected with HIV which causes AIDS.  Of those, 2o% or 240,000 don’t know they have it due to the “underground nature” of the virus, whose symptoms may not be revealed for years;

ü Only 40% of the 1, 2 million afflicted are receiving HIV fighting medications on a regular basis. In addition, only 28% have achieved low levels of viral infection in their blood.  Thus, 850,000 Americans do not have the virus controlled. Officials say… “We could be doing a lot better.”

ü Low levels of treatment may be attributed to a number of factors… lack of money, not allowing sufficient time before medications take effect and a small percentage in which treatment is not effective;

ü “The Good News” – Once tested, diagnosed and treatment begins, with effective medical care provided, the virus is brought under control about 80% of the time;

ü On the day of the 20th anniversary of Unit 5Bthere were but four patients with HIV on Ward 5A;

ü Testing for HIV alone isn’t good enough, according to CDC officials. San Francisco has aggressively and routinely offered HIV testing and follow-up treatment in emergency rooms;

ü A Novel Approach– A Department of Motor Vehicles office in Washington, D. C. has offered $5.00 gift cards to patrons waiting for address changes and licenses if they agree to take an HIV test (Due to the city’s widespread infection rate);

ü Black gay and bi-sexual men reportedly account for about a quarter of all new HIV infections in the U.S. currently;\

ü Parting Comments Re San Francisco General:

ü Steve Keith, one of the original nurse volunteers who stayed to work with patients and family members for nearly29 tears accidently stuck himself six times with needles over time and learned he was HIV positive in 1995.  He commented on his longevity on the Unit at SFG in a 2003 article this way: “It’s like an old boyfriend… You never stop loving that person…or place… They are always a part of your life.”

ü Nurse Diane Jones, another original Ward 5B recruit described working with a patient who previously was very handsome and worked as a model.  Due to the virus, he developed the worse case of Kaposi’s sarcoma .they had ever encountered.  His features were so distorted with purple lesions, he resembled the “Elephant man.” The vigil for his death was so prolonged his family had come and gone… While bathing him one day, he explained to Diane why he “couldn’t simply give up and die.”  He said, “I have a commitment to life. I cannot turn off the life force.”  “Life doesn’t usually teach those lessons in your 20s and 30s,” Jones said.

AMEN…. Ladyjustice





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