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Living History

by Monica Smith

Aug 02, 2019, 9:00 AM.

FIU nursing grad Cliff Morrison recounts the beginning of HIV/AIDS in America in “5B” documentary.

Cliff Morrison, a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital recalled the panic that set in when the majority of the facility’s beds were filled with ailing men, seemingly in the prime of their lives, but stricken with a strange and unknown disease. Nothing could have prepared the Florida International University-educated alum for what would unfold as he witnessed the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic unfold.

“There was hysteria,” described Morrison who graduated in 1974 from FIU’s nursing program and then again a few years later with a degree in business administration and in public health. “There was fear and a lot of misinformation. I soon began to realize that the fear was really homophobia.”

Morrison’s story and that of several others including the earliest patients in the U.S. is documented in a newly released movie called “5B.”

So Many Affected

With an increasing number of patients diagnosed with the disease each day, the hospital made the move to create an entire floor dedicated to the care of the patients. Morrison commented that, at first, he was against it, because he didn’t want the patients to feel discriminated against or have substandard treatment, tucked away. But, he reluctantly agreed for practical reasons. 

“The numbers became so significant, so I said, ‘Let's do this for the right reasons,’” he stated. Morrison explained that the purpose for 5B was to create good, quality care. He saw, almost immediately, that HIV/AIDS was a “nursing disease,” or illness that requires ongoing care beyond what a physician can or would provide after a diagnosis.

An ‘Aha’ Moment

A turning point early on for Morrison came when he personally treated a friend of a friend. The 5B hospital section had only been operational for about three months. The patient he treated said, “I’m not as afraid of dying as I am of what you will allow to happen to me in the process,” recounted Morrison. This fueled his purpose to help revolutionize healthcare practices and standards of care, he said. 

“There are times in our lives that you simply have to step up to the plate. I knew what my duty was. It was pretty clear to me we didn’t have the right to refuse care from anyone,” he said and clarified how he started creating protocols to ensure patients were a part of planning their own care. 

A devout Catholic, Morrison felt called to help and he wasn’t ever fearful. He knew enough from his education that the disease was not transmitted casually, but homophobia prevented this message. Morrison cited his key role as a sort of health advisor to the archbishop at the archdiocese of San Francisco. Initially, there was fear regarding the eucharist—the communal cup practice, he remembered.

Learning From the Past

The “5B” documentary, which was financed by Johnson & Johnson revisits the first cases of HIV/AIDS in America. Unless affected personally, many do not remember the early years of the disease so, from a historical perspective, the film offers a look at how healthcare, more than 35 years ago, with nurses at the forefront, changed the course of treatment for HIV/AIDS patients in the U.S. Those equal partnership practices and standards of care established on 5B are still in use. The film also offers a social commentary of how detrimental public perception was regarding the gay community.

“Today, I’m really pleased to see how far we’ve come in so many ways. My time at FIU really prepared me very well,” Morrison declared 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.”

The limited-release film will be available on demand everywhere, August 27, 2019. 

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