Watching Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis’ documentary, 5B brought back a flood of memories (mostly bad ones) of a dark time not just for the gay community but the America I knew and loved. Let’s just say for me, there are sins I have to atone for. In the broad sense, 5B is a historical film about the AIDS epidemic starting from the early 80s to today. At the micro-level, though, 5B refers to the HIV/AIDS wing at San Francisco General Hospital established in 1983.
It opens with the discovery of what was dubbed “Gay Cancer” and quickly became an epidemic in San Francisco’s gay community. Gay men were dying at a rapid pace, and little was known about the disease. This lack of knowledge spurred a great deal of hysteria. With nothing to go on and a growing number of infected men, Ward 5B was opened and staffed by heroic doctors, nurses, and caregivers to provide comfort for those in the last days of their lives. There was no precedent. No standard for care. No manuals to follow. So the 5B staff had to make it up as they went along and set their own standard.
“…5B refers to the HIV/AIDS wing at San Francisco General Hospital established in 1983.”
At this point, there was no cure or treatment for this growing epidemic. The exact details about its transmission was sketchy at best. At first, caregivers wore “hazmat” suits when examining patients. Nurses and doctors had to be extra careful drawing blood or inserting needles. In the outside world, the religious referred to AIDS as “God’s judgment on gays.” Parents turned away from their outed children. Partners were not allowed to make medical decisions because they weren’t married.
Krauss and Haggis’ documentary makes public the unknown heroes of that time. Many of whom, appear in the film to describe their experiences…good and bad. Cliff Morrison was a program director at San Francisco General and headed up Ward 5B from its beginning to its end in the early 2000s. Alison Moed was one of the original twelve nurses to start in the ward. Rita Rockett was a volunteer who transformed 5B from a morgue into a party house on weekends with weekly brunches and holiday parties. Mary Magee was also a nurse in 5B, but publicly known as Jane Doe, when she was pricked by a blood-filled needle and contracted HIV as a result. And Hank Plante a reporter for San Francisco’s NBC affiliate and one of the first openly gay reporters right on the front lines of the story.
"…a highly detailed account of the AIDS crisis."