St. Vincent's Remembered

8.17.2010

By Out.com Editors

Walter Armstrong's moving oral history of the Catholic hospital that was ground zero for AIDS in the '80s. It may have closed its doors for good -- but the people who were there won't soon forget it.

The idea of a hospital floor devoted exclusively to AIDS was pioneered by San Francisco General’s Ward 86 in 1983. In 1984, St. Vincent’s followed suit, launching the nation’s second AIDS ward. By 1986, one third of the hospital’s 350 beds were filled by AIDS patients, and it was designated one of the city’s first AIDS clinical care centers. In exchange for getting 30% higher reimbursement for each AIDS admission and other funding, St. Vincent’s agreed to ramp up its services to people with HIV. In 1988, St. Vincent’s started its Comprehensive HIV Center, for outpatient care and research -- in a ground-floor closet in a building across the street.

Lee Raden, AIDS Ward Resident Nurse
The hospital administration put the AIDS ward in Spellman, an old, dirty, nasty building. The rooms were small, single rooms that had to be made into doubles. It was hard to get beds and stretchers in and out. Spellman 7 was not a place that you would want to be -- with the spanking-new and shining Cronin building next door. But then we upsized: There were so many AIDS patients that they had to open up the Cronin side, because the seventh floors connected.

Some of the nurses were gay, but most were straight women with families, who had absolutely no experience with anything like this. Well, nobody had any experience with anything like this -- and yet they stepped up.

Maureen Satriano, AIDS Ward RN
Some nurses didn’t want to rotate there because of homophobia or stigma, but most didn’t want to because you had to work your ass off. AIDS is a multisystem disease, and you had to know about all the systems of the body. And no one was used to the sheer volume of meds that you had to give, not to mention the IV antibiotics for blood infections. We were also the only floor that had a lot of patients on ventilators, which is a lot of work—and we wanted to keep them on our floor because we didn’t want anyone on the ICU messing up their treatment. It was the hardest I ever worked, but it was the best job I ever had. You were making a difference to someone every single minute of your shift.

Noel George, HIV Center research RN
Once you came into the ward, it was like you stepped into another place. There was warmth and love and compassion. The nun who ran the unit -- Sister Patricia -- was full of love. It was full all the time. Every day we admitted fevers, fevers, fevers. They were dehydrated; they had all these terrible infections. It was really kind of a hospice. But outside that unit, you were in trouble.

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