SF General celebrates 25 years of AIDS care

December 1, 2008 7:12:08 PM PST
In 1983, AIDS was an issue of life and death; much of that living and dying took place at San Francisco General Hospital.

Diane Jones was a young nurse who volunteered to work with patients suffering from the then mysterious disease.

"You really had to understand the fear level people had," Jones said. "We hadn't discovered the causative agent of this syndrome, we knew there was something called AIDS."

SF General had become the first hospital in the U.S. to open dedicated AIDS wards. Unit 5B housed inpatient beds and Ward 86 handled the flood of newly identified cases.

A list of symptoms was all that could be used for diagnosis since there was not yet a test for the virus.

Over the first terrible years, doctors and nurses would watch scores of patients die.

"We all call the 80's the bad old days,that was a time when the disease was killing the young, the creative people of San Francisco," Dr. Diane Havlir said. Havlir is chief of the HIV/AIDS division at SF General and still works on Ward 86. She believes the pioneering work done in partnership with the University of California, San Francisco helped launch the war against HIV.

"It was defeating, there was despair, but also a time of activism, and time to get involved and take action; that's what the people of San Francisco did," Havlir said.

But in the mid 1990's, a revolution in drug therapies changed the lives of thousands of AIDS patients in the Bay Area and the mission of Ward 86 adjusted too.

"We needed to increase our emphasis that 'this is a disease you could live with, that this is a disease we're going to work with for decades on,'" Havlir said.

More than two decades later, doctors and nurses on Ward 86 are still helping an estimated 3,000 people with HIV and AIDS manage their health and lives. Treatment for some is now down to a single pill and support care helps most live at home.

The expertise of Ward 86 is also being shared with medical professionals from around the world. Recently, a group traveled from Tanzania to learn about the model of care first developed in San Francisco 25 years ago.

"At the time we were just doing it one day at a time; the sense of history now is in hindsight," Jones said.


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