The Compassionate Nurses: A Powerful Portrayal of the First AIDS Ward in America.
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The Compassionate Nurses: A Powerful Portrayal of the First AIDS Ward in America.

5B: The AIDS Documentary – Directed by Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss

Director Dan Krauss and co-producer Paul Haggis have crafted an effective tearjerker about the nurses of San Francisco General Hospital’s 5B, the first AIDS ward in America. The film reveals how they provided radical compassion to their patients at a time when many others shunned them.

The film features a mix of archive footage and present-day talking heads, including Morrison and several surviving 5B patients. The nurses set aside clinical detachment and embraced their patients, even touching them to comfort them at a time when doctors still didn’t know how HIV was spread.

What is 5B?

Directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss aim straight for the tear ducts in their deeply moving portrait of 5B, a trailblazing San Francisco hospital ward that pioneered more humane methods of nursing AIDS patients during the disease’s paranoid 1980s zenith. While some of the nurses interviewed recall initial reluctance to deal with the sufferers, the film shows how they reset standard boundaries for clinical detachment and eschewed alarmist precautions like hazmat suits in favor of letting their patients’ human needs take center stage.

The saga is conveyed through first-person testimony from nurses and caregivers who built and ran the ward. Cliff Morrison, Alison Moed Paolercio, and a host of others speak about how they embraced their charges as people, not patients. They even threw jolly ward parties and morale-boosting Sunday brunches, turning what had become an ominous morgue into a healing community.

What is the story of 5B?

The ravages of the AIDS crisis and its victims have been well documented in film, but the heroic efforts of the hospital staff in 5B have not. Co-directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss gather first-person oral history and extensive archival footage in this stirring collection, which honors the renowned ward established in 1983 at San Francisco General Hospital.

5B’s nursing staff, including such familiar faces as Cliff Morrison and David Denmark, created a culture of care that went beyond providing medical treatment. They threw parties, served Sunday brunches and touched their patients without gloves, all at a time when the disease was still considered airborne and infectious. They even let the patients decide who they deemed family, defying the protocols that kept partners and friends from visiting their dying loved ones.

The resulting documentary is both unsettling and inspiring, with a few moments of manipulation thrown in for good measure (for example, the fate of a nurse who contracted AIDS is withheld). But the heartbreaking, heroic story at its core is powerful.

What is the message of 5B?

Featuring the voices of nurses and caregivers (including Cliff Morrison, Alison Moed Paolercio and David Denmark) who worked in 5B, the film evokes the fear and despair of the early days of the AIDS epidemic. In an era when doctors didn’t know how the virus spread and many of those who were diagnosed died within months, the staff in 5B focused on lifting spirits and lessening suffering.

Haggis and Krauss occasionally use tactics that smack of melodrama, such as the ominous sounding music that accompanies archive footage of darkened hospital corridors, or teasing viewers about what happened to a nurse who contracted HIV through an accidental needlestick or about the fate of a patient whose lifelong partner succumbed to AIDS. But, for the most part, the directors’ eloquent simplicity lets the testimony of their interview subjects and their archival footage speak for itself.

Despite the devastating subject matter, 5B is ultimately an inspirational story of everyday heroes. It reminds us that compassion is more powerful than hatred and that love can conquer even the most ravaged bodies.

What is the conclusion of 5B?

With its mix of straight-for-the-tears interviews and evocative archival footage, 5B is an inspirational reminder that compassion is bigger than hate and Hallmark. Moreover, it’s a tribute to the nurses who built the first AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital in 1983 and established a model for caring for AIDS patients that’s both medically sound and humane.

A few of the interviewees—notably David Denmark and Alison Moed Paolercio—convey a sense of how hard it was to work with these patients, who were so sick and scared. Their suffering and loss were real, but the staff tried to lift spirits and lessen their pain with the tools they had available at a time when the disease was still misunderstood.

Haggis and Krauss’ approach sometimes feels manipulative, including withholding Magee’s fate until late in the film and dangling the fate of another participating nurse as a kind of narrative curveball. But it’s an important story, and this is a well-told version of it.

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