5B (2019): How One Hospital Dealt with the AIDS Crisis at its Beginning

SF General during Start of AIDS Crisis

Alison Moed Paolercio and Dan Krauss in a room in 5B at San Francisco General Hospital. Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle

The documentary “5B” tells the story of the early days of the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital, of the people who ran it and the nurses who worked there and comforted patients who were suffering physical agonies and horrible loneliness.

A tale from the front lines, before the disease had a name, through the early days when no one knew how it was transmitted.
When some medical professionals were making the rounds wearing HazMat suits, these nurses were touching and hugging AIDS patients, long before anyone knew for sure that was safe.

The docu concerns the nurses of Ward 5B, and their battlefield mentality. They had a commitment to offer care, regardless of consequences. They turned out to have guessed right, that AIDS was not an airborne disease, so it’s understandable that, as their influence grew, others in their profession felt challenged and even threatened by their example.

Featuring interviews with nurses and administrators, such as Alison Moed Paolercio, Cliff Morrison and David Denmark, the docu recalls the culture of 5B, of how nurses tried to lift spirits and lessen suffering.

“5B” brings back the horror of those first AIDS years, in which the death toll multiplied and there were no treatments.

In the midst of the crisis, some rose to the occasion and some were scared. Even after it was medically established that AIDS could only be transferred through bodily fluids, there were nurses and doctors who wanted to establish defensive protocols — such as gloves and protective clothing when dealing with AIDS patients, and mandatory AIDS testing for those about to go into surgery. It’s understandable how anyone in that situation might want to make their own safety their top priority.

As presented in interviews from then and now, these critics of the 5B approach are sympathetic, at first. But inevitably, some of these people lose sympathy as they implicitly blame the patients for getting sick.

One doctor says that such major health crisis was inevitable in the gay community. These interviews bring back the bad old days, when many people, overtly or implicitly, suggested that AIDS was form of retribution, either scientific or divine, for the gay lifestyle.

Directed by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss, 5B is a quiet celebration of achievement. It has been more than 30 years, and all the nurses who were young then have stories.