Review: '5B' is a transformative document of San Francisco hospital's early AIDS caretakers

Ward 5B patient Shane Harjo and his mother Janet ( PHOTO: Mary Asbury)

Ward 5B patient Shane Harjo and his mother Janet (PHOTO: Mary Asbury)

This review comes less than a week after the murder of 28-year-old gay man Ronald Trey Peters in Dekalb County, GA. This review comes after the recent murder of Chanel Scurlock in Lumberton, NC, the ninth homicide of a trans woman of color this year and the second this month. It is through this lens that I came to see 5B, with a hyperawareness of my queerness, the target it puts on my back, my vulnerability, and life’s fragility.

5B is the story of the first ward designated to treat AIDS patients founded in San Francisco General Hospital during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis. In the late 70s and into the 1980s, most AIDS patients were being treated solely as carriers of a deadly disease. Nurses and doctors would only treat patients in hazmat suits out of fear of the unknown. It wasn’t until the brave nurses, doctors and caretakers that came together to form 5B that AIDS patients finally began being treated as human beings. “You were allowed to love your patients” says Allison Moed, 5B’s Nurse Manager.

The documentary shows patients and staff interacting, sharing intimate moments like a simple hug. For some of these patients, it is their first instance of real contact in a long time, and it means the world to them. The movie interviews the staff today and they talk about forming bonds with the people they cared for, how they loved their patients, and how much it hurt to see them dying in their care again and again. The stories of the patients were full of people looking for acceptance from families that have abandoned them. We also see partners of patients standing by their side, holding their hand through the pain of their loved one.

Ward 5B caregiver Rita Rockett visits with a patient  (PHOTO: Ken Kobré)

Ward 5B caregiver Rita Rockett visits with a patient (PHOTO: Ken Kobré)

In one of the film’s brighter moments, the film highlights performer Rita Rockett who would host Sunday Brunch and visit patients to brighten up their experience in any little way she could with great sensitivity and spirit. “So much in life is not in what you say or do, but how you make people feel,” Rita says in an interview. The entire ward becomes a family that does everything in their power and beyond to provide for the people in their care.

The work of the ward was no easy feat, but the crew rose to meet the challenges facing them with enthusiasm. All the major players in this movie inspire courage. 5B shows what it took to be a proud member of the LGBT+ community while its members were dying before their very eyes. The film shows the great costs the ward had to endure, and the dangers of being a true ally. The legal battles, harassment, risks, and hate the staff had to face in order to defend their practice would exhaust any lesser group of people. Cliff Morrison, a nurse specialist in 5B says in the film, “People were telling me ‘you’re probably going to get AIDS. You’re probably going to die’. Now I might have some anxiety about this, but I’m more pissed off and angry than I am scared.”

There is an ample amount of footage from the ward’s humble beginnings. The audience is put right into the action of the early days of the AIDS crisis with unflinching video of patients, sometimes scared and frail undergoing treatment. Some content is even considered graphic with blood, surgical shots, needles, and soiled linens, but the shots bravely reflect the reality of the circumstances.

This film has the potential to transform anyone with an open heart. It provides empathy for people who society too easily discarded. It remembers the lives of victims too quickly forgotten.  5B offers an opportunity for people of all identities to gain understanding into a moment of history that caused so much pain in the fabric of our world.

As we continue into Pride month, we can begin to heal the wounds addressed in the film by listening to the stories of our queer and ally elders. We can redefine the values that are important to us based on the examples of the heroes of 5B.

Queerness is looking death in the eye and living your truth anyway. Bravery is the willingness to touch someone, to hold their hand, when it may not be safe. Compassion is becoming someone’s family when theirs is taken away. Strength is showing up for others when it isn’t convenient. Real love takes pain; it is fighting for the life of another.

This Pride, we can celebrate how far we’ve come by taking a hard look at where we’ve been. 5B gives us that chance, and for the love and sake of our community, please take it.

Nicholas Goodly is an Atlanta poet and the Writing Editor of WUSSY MAG.