By Vanessa Vieites
In the 2019 documentary “5B,” FIU nursing alumnus Cliff Morrison ’74, MS '76 recounts seeing a growing number of male patients withering away in the beds at San Francisco General Hospital, nary a visitor in sight. It was 1981, and an epidemic of rare forms of pneumonia, tumors and other ailments began to strike men in the prime of their lives. Soon after, the phrase “gay cancer” would appear in newspaper headlines across the nation, inciting a wave of public fear.
The following year, public health officials began referring to the disease as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and researchers would soon discover the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes it.
By then, some scientists and health care practitioners suspected that AIDS was a blood-borne—not an airborne—illness, and so not something one could “catch” through casual contact. Still, fear of contracting it was so widespread that hospital staff, in efforts to avoid infection even by indirect contact, allowed food trays to pile up in hallways outside AIDS patients’ rooms and left those suffering from the disease to sit in soiled sheets.
William Darrow, a professor of public health in FIU’s Department of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, back then worked for the Centers for Disease Control. He remembers well the alarm the epidemic set off among those coming into close contact with victims of the disease.
“Initially, we didn’t know how easy or how difficult it was for whatever was causing [AIDS] to be spread, so we had to take caution,” he says. “But once the data started to come in, this disease looked more like a sexually transmitted disease to me. So I didn’t have fears, but lots of people did.”
A clinical nurse specialist, Morrison saw how such fears impacted even the way doctors and nurses tended to the sick. The lack of feeling appalled him and he sought a better way.
“Somewhere in that time, I began to think, there are a number of people here who agree with me—nurses that I consider my allies, doctors of infectious diseases that I had worked with. So [I thought], maybe we should have an AIDS unit, but we should do it for different reasons,” recalled Morrison, who cautioned against simply sequestering patients to keep them out of sight, as some had earlier suggested. “Let’s do it so that we can consolidate the care,” Morrison appealed, “so that we can develop the expertise and develop a standard of care.”
And so in 1983, ward 5B was born. Funded by the city of San Francisco and run by registered nurses, the unit provided specialized care to AIDS patients. There was, however, one caveat: Nurses on 5B were not allowed to wear any protective medical gear, including gloves, gowns or masks, when talking to or treating patients unless it was clinically appropriate to do so. If they weren’t able to cure these patients, they could at least treat them humanely, Morrison thought.
“I started saying to the nurses I was working with that this is a disease that is more geared to nursing than anything else that we’ve ever seen because there isn’t that much that medical science can do but there’s a lot that nurses can do,” Morrison said. “The most important thing we can do is to touch our patients.”
Ward 5B was run with compassion. Nurses embraced their patients, held their hands and even ate lunch with them when their friends and family had abandoned them. But this revolutionary care was not without pushback. A few nurses felt their lives were at risk and that it was unjust for the hospital to mandate that they not wear protective medical equipment when face-to-face with AIDS patients. Fearing they would contract the disease, a small group of nurses unsuccessfully sued Morrison in 1984.
Having worked closely with researchers at the University of California-San Francisco and medical experts at San Francisco General Hospital, Morrison and others felt confident that the health and well-being of his fellow nurses were not at serious risk, although that was not yet established scientific fact.
“We provided education and training for nurses, and most went along with that, but there was a group who said ‘absolutely not. We want to wear masks, gowns, gloves for everything that we do. We don’t want to go into their rooms without it,’ and I said, ‘No, this is our policy. These are our procedures and you are going to follow them or you will be disciplined.’”
Morrison believes that the aversion to these patients had much to do with the deep-seated homophobia prevalent at the time. “People hated homosexuals and they felt like [they] shouldn’t have to provide care to these people, and they would find every excuse in the world not to do that.”
Darrow, the FIU professor who worked at the CDC, agrees with Morrison’s assessment. “We have a long history of discrimination, stigmatization, treating people, particularly from vulnerable populations, very badly, and AIDS response is another case.”
Morrison would go on to help administer the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation AIDS health services program in 12 cities around the United Sates, including Miami and Fort Lauderdale. He applied his expertise to replicating the standard of care he had established in California, which became known as the San Francisco Model.
Looking back at the resistance he encountered all those year ago, Morrison says he never once questioned whether the work was worth the repercussions and credits his upbringing as the root of his compassion. “It was a combination of things,” says the devout Catholic, “the family values that I was taught growing up, the fact that I grew up with a religious foundation. I went into nursing, and all of those things complemented each other greatly. My work matched where I was as a person, and I stayed true to myself.”
Morrison as a young nurse
Morrison with Julianne Moore in May 2019 on the red carpet at Cannes, where the documentary "5B" was screened. The Oscar-winning actress said her experience of caring for someone infected with the AIDS virus spurred her decision to help promote the film about the unsung heroes who looked after AIDS sufferers in the 1980s.
“My time at FIU really prepared me very well,” Morrison says of his education in devising treatment strategies. “My BSN helped me tremendously. I was able to reach back and think about what I had learned and apply it to help patients.” –Cliff Morrison ’74, MS ’76*