Meet the nurses who cared for AIDS patients when no one else would

The new documentary “5B” spotlights the San Francisco nurses who cared for HIV/AIDS patients in the early '80s when little was known about the disease.
By Brian Latimer

At the beginning of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, little was known about the disease except that contracting it was effectively a death sentence. Before it was known how the disease spread or how it could be treated, nurses at San Francisco General Hospital opened Ward 5B to care for people — most of them LGBTQ — who were dying of AIDS-related illnesses.

In 1983, 5B became the world’s first hospital ward dedicated to HIV/AIDS patients, and now the story of those who worked there and received treatment there is the subject of a new documentary aptly titled “5B.”

The film follows the nurses who got the ward up and running, as well as other San Francisco General employees who rallied against 5B’s demand for resources and the hospital's treatment of patients with HIV.

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One of 5B's nurses, Guy Vandenberg, worked in hospice care prior to his job at San Francisco General, so his expertise was uniquely suited to handling the victims of the nascent epidemic.

For Vandenberg, the disease became personal when friends contracted HIV and got sick. Eventually, his work followed him home when his partner, Steve, contracted the disease.

“I was dealing with the HIV, I was fighting for better access to medications in my free time,” Vandenberg told NBC News. “I was in ACT UP, and during work when Steve got sick and was diagnosed, I was angry. I was terrified. This man is the love of my life.”

Vandenberg sat down with NBC News THINK contributor Brian Latimer to discuss his work in Ward 5B, how his partner survived the HIV/AIDS crisis, the current state of health care and the new documentary film in which he is a central character.

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