5B is a documentary by directors Paul Haggis and Dan Krauss revisiting the story of San Francisco General in the 1980s, specifically the tale of a ward constructed by the nurses in the hospital to care for AIDS patients. I had the opportunity to have brunch with two of the fabulous subjects of the film: Alison Moed, a per diem nurse at SFGH turned Nurse Manager for Ward 5B, and in retirement an advocate and non-profit volunteer; and Hank Plante, an award winning American television reporter and newspaper columnist currently working at NBC in Palm Springs, CA, who covered top news stories for three decades in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Boston Hassle: What was it like for you as a reporter whose personal life was so close to the subject matter?
Hank Plante: That’s a good question. Well, covering AIDS was always more than a story to me because it was personal. These were my friends who were being affected, and it was a terrible time, but it was a way for me to channel my grief and my anger, doing stories about it. So I felt at least I wasn’t completely powerless. And maybe I could make some kind of a difference then. So, it was really kind of, as strange as it sounds, a blessing for me to be in that position. To try to help to make a difference, and I’ll bet Alison feels the same way about this. You get the idea, it was just a way for me to do something. Something. Yeah. Instead of just feeling so powerless. As it was hitting all my friends.
BH: So much of the film is about nurses getting close to the patients and experiencing these intimate moments with them. How did you relate to that in your own role as a reporter?
HP: Well, I do relate to that. Because there were many stories that I did where I was interviewing my friends. You know, when you’re a reporter, you always wind up interviewing your friends. [laughs] Whatever the story is! Because you gotta find somebody to talk about whatever the story is and, “Oh yeah, that happened to my buddy!” So, I did wind up interviewing my friends many times, and—not always— you know, I try not to cross the line. I don’t like to use friendships professionally. I don’t want to use people. But there were many of my friends who were very amenable to talking about what medications they were trying—was it working? Not working? So, yeah those stories were very personal.
BH: Yeah. And did you? What was that like for you professionally? Did you get any pushback about talking about these things? Or was it so big that—?
HP: I did get pushback. There was pushback within my own television station. There were people who worked there who didn’t like the fact that we were covering AIDS so much. They thought it would hurt the ratings. But fortunately, my bosses let me do what I wanted. And they saw it as a compelling story—and a public service.
There was a lot of pushback. At one of my competing stations, there were photographers who wouldn’t enter a room to do an interview with someone with AIDS. The photographer would stand in the doorway, with the camera, and the reporter would go in the room with a stick mic, not a clip on mic—right? A stick mic—and interview the patients that way.
BH: Just, anything to distance themselves.
HP: Yeah, the photographer wouldn’t go in the room. So yeah, the pushback was happening everywhere.
BH: I was also wondering about, if at any point, there was more news at one time, like in 1996 with the development of—
HP: Protease inhibitors.
BH: Yes! When those were developed.
HP: Oh, that was huge. And I was so happy to be able to do positive stories, because that was the breakthrough. Now, there are better drugs since. Allison knows more about this than I do, but that was just such a breakthrough. And that’s when the hope really started to happen.
BH: Alison, what was the biggest factor for you, when you decided to jump on the project of building the ward? Was there a moment for you where you thought, “I need to do this?” And what was your why?
Alison Moed: I was not working in the hospital at that moment. I had worked per diem there before. I had seen the way patients were treated. I saw how they were discriminated against and not well cared for. So, that was in my mindset. I had many friends who were at risk—who seemed to be at risk. Of course, we didn’t know exactly what the parameters of this were.
BH: Because it was still unfolding.
AM: Yes. So, that was something else: they were very important to me. And it still seemed sort of like a distant phenomenon. “This wouldn’t happen to my friends.” But, you know, your mind is sort of starting to—the wheels are starting to turn.
I was working in psychiatry, I was working in a hospice. I’d been working with patients who had spinal cord injuries and head trauma. So, generally, I gravitate towards working with people who are at pivotal points in their lives. And then, a friend, a very dear friend of mine, who was working at the hospital saw a notice for the unit, and she told me about it. And I knew immediately that I wanted to apply, that I wanted to lend myself—my efforts to combating this, although I didn’t really know what that meant, but I was immediately attracted, and I did apply.
I still remember being interviewed. And I was hoping, you know, that I would be chosen, because I wanted to be part of this venture. I thought we could make a difference– I really had no idea of how that difference would play out– and maybe stop this because I wanted to be a part of that very much.
BH: Outside of work—maybe even before you applied— were you fighting for this? Did you feel like there were any other efforts that you could have taken on other than this? Other than working on 5B?
AM: Honestly, at that point, I was just… a person! Like I was saying, I was a nurse—a strong identity as a nurse—I had just finished getting my bachelor’s degree. I was looking for work that I really wanted to do, that I would be very drawn to, that would be of my heart, that I felt a strong connection for. I wasn’t a very political person. I wasn’t an activist. I had a lot of friends in the gay community. But I didn’t know that they were. I didn’t necessarily have a sense— a political sense, I would say, I just had the heart sense.
BH: How old were you when you applied?
AM: I was getting to be in my mid-thirties, I would say. And, as I said, I saw this opportunity to provide good care to people I really cared about, and to maybe stop this– I didn’t know what that meant. But I soon realized that we couldn’t really stop it. That wasn’t our task.
But there wasn’t a moment’s thought: the idea of helping with this, of putting my feet on the ground, you know, putting my hands into the work for people that I cared about in a community that welcomed me and that meant, you know, a lot to me, that was instantly important to me.
BH: Did the work that you did in the ward affect your personal life, and has it affected how you have led yourself personally and professionally since then, and can you talk to that?
AM: The work—That’s a good question. Did it affect my personal life? First of all: yes, of course, because it affected me personally. It was immediately very affecting, involving. It wasn’t immediately apparent how much loss there would be, how sad—how hard it would be. But that soon unfolded, and unfolded, as the months and years went by. Fortunately, I had a family that was very proud of what I was doing—that supported what I was doing. I had a boyfriend, who eventually became my husband, who also was—and we were told by Cliff [Morrison] “Go home and talk to your families and your friends and see how they feel about this. And then see if you really want to do it.” You’d have to say there was an element of risk, because the virus hadn’t been identified. Even though we could surmise and have a pretty good idea of how the disease was transmitted—we didn’t know for sure. My boyfriend also was right there for me, and my friends in the gay community, also, were supportive for the most part, so that was the immediate reaction from people around me who I cared about… Tell me the second part?
BH: How has your work in the ward affected you personally and professionally since then?
AM: You know, I did have a sense of strong ideals—I think we all did—about how to be a professional nurse. And that was very important. We were very proud of our identities, as nurses who knew how to give care. I think that working on the unit really informed what caring meant, for me. How caring is not something that you visit on someone. It’s interactional. It’s an interacting experience. That’s really what holistic care is about. You are listening to someone tell you what they need to create a healing environment; what they need to feel comfortable and accepted. And if we don’t feel accepted and comfortable, we’re not going to be at peace. We’re not going to heal. Even if healing means a comfortable way of dying, you know? Even if it doesn’t mean recovery. So I learned the importance of listening to my patients; of sharing with them what I know from my professional background, but melding that with what it is that they need. And their families, and how they defined their families, and what they need. I also learned the importance of listening to my colleagues and coworkers, and being united in our approach; in what we were going to do because that was a very strong part of our identity on that unit.
BH: It seems like there were a lot of you all figuring out how to do this in real time. And making really strong choices that other people in the hospital disagreed with—tried to fight, you know, tried to push against—
AM: But, you know what? When you think about it, why not? Why not have someone’s lover, partner, husband, friend in the room with them? You know? Sleeping with them? Even lying on the bed with them, touching them, holding their hand? Hello? What’s wrong with that? Because it’s a hospital? So what?! Well, this is their room! These are adults. They’re not doing anything, you know? How much more comfortable; how much more peaceful will you be when someone you love is nearby with you? Why let some bureaucratic idea interfere with that?! Makes no sense at all! You know? And a lot of these ideas have now become incorporated into regulations. And are seen in the hospital today.
BH: And people talk about soft skills and stuff like that. Just being able to interact with people and kind of be caring. I feel like that’s starting to come to a point where people are valuing it more.
AM: And it behooves them to do so. Or, you know, may be them in that bed one day.
BH: What was it like for both when you were approached about the documentary? And now having seen it, what was that like? Is it surreal?
HP: Yeah, it is! Isn’t it?
HP: We were both talking just a few minutes ago about getting emotional again, because, you know, this is stuff we haven’t—I can’t speak for Allison—but I haven’t thought about this in this detail on a long time. Because you kind of put it out of your head. You have to, right? So surreal is a good word for it.
AM: Yes, it is surreal. I was a little bit hesitant. I didn’t want the movie to be only about us, I also wanted to include a reference to present day, because there is still a need. Certainly AIDS is not the death sentence it once was. And yet there are, you know, populations that are not being—yes, in Africa, but also in our own country, where people of color were drug addicts, or not necessarily having accepting, happy experiences in the healthcare system, and are reluctant to approach care and aren’t getting the education and the prevention and treatment that they should be getting, and that everyone should be getting. So I think there’s a need to step up to all the communities—gay, straight, every color—about what’s available. About how the virus is still there. About how to approach their sexuality and sex life in this regard. And then of course in other countries, particularly African countries, a lot of the treatments are still so little—or still not available. So that is an implication also, of the film. You know? I could go on and on! I may be digressing here.
BH: [Laughs] Well, I was also going to ask you about what you think about an audience today seeing this? What are the biggest takeaways for an audience in 2019?
HP: Well, people who didn’t live through it can’t imagine how bad it was. It was terrible! There was so much discrimination, and there was so much anger, especially in the early years. We didn’t even know how it was spread. Didn’t stop the nurses from coming up and doing their job! But it was really, really horrible. And then for older people who did live through it, like me, to kind of compartmentalize our feelings about it, you had to live through it. And it’s important to remember. You know? It’s part of our national history. And ultimately, the film is not a downer. The film is about a disease that came out of nowhere. Nobody knows where it came from. It didn’t stop the nurses from showing up and doing their job. And so the film was about compassion and love.
BH: The things I kind of just kept on coming back to in watching the film were the tremendous feelings of loss and grief. But also, there are all of these—I feel like resilience is the wrong word. But there’s so much defiance. And facing death and accepting the fear that you have. And then still just sitting with that and trying to enjoy life.
AM: I think you’re saying something really important. And this is, for me, one of the big take-home messages: Accept the fears that you have, because we all have them. Look at those fears, and learn from them! You will be a stronger person, and you can embrace the world! We can’t do that when we’re afraid, or when we’re withdrawn into ourselves. The fear of people who are different than you—different color, different religion, different country, different sexuality—those fears are crippling! And they’re based on ignorance. We all have the challenge to learn, to question, to find out more about the people that we fear, and what they think and how they feel. And you know what? We find out they are very similar to us. That’s my experience. And I’m an old lady now. So I can speak with wisdom, right?! [Laughter] As someone was pointing out earlier—and I agree—this is a time of great polarization in our country. I don’t think it helps us. I don’t think it helps us to be entrenched and not be able to hear what one or another of us is saying, in our country. I think we are a country of people from many, many different backgrounds. And that’s what makes us rich and strong. And that’s what’s going to enable us to move forward in the future, because, “United we stand.” Right? That’s what we think. So, I think you can find in the film that ordinary people just stepped up. And that’s something that we can all do now. In our ordinary ways. And that’s incredibly important.
dir. Dan Krauss and Paul Haggis
Now playing at the AMC Liberty Tree Mall (Danvers) and AMC Methuen (hopefully closer to home soon). Run, don’t walk!