‘I’m Glad I Was Defiant’

‘I’m Glad I Was Defiant’

By SONHSNews

‘I’m Glad I Was Defiant’

By SONHSNews
SONHS grad Cliff Morrison, MSN ’79, revolutionized patient care during the AIDS crisis. Now the subject of an award-winning documentary, he recently returned to campus to speak about his experiences.

As the CDC began reporting the first cases of what would later be known as AIDS, national panic quickly spread about what was still a mysterious and deadly illness. On July 25, 1983, a couple of months before the CDC had even identified the main routes of infection, a nurse-led team at San Francisco General Hospital established the first ward to ensure dedicated, holistic care—a human touch—for patients dying from the newly named Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Until then, people hospitalized with what had been bluntly and inaccurately dubbed “the gay cancer” languished painfully in uncleaned rooms. They went unwashed, unfed, their most basic needs unmet. Some hospital staff, including licensed health professionals, and even family members, feared contracting the illness.

“I saw patients alone, begging for someone to come assist them. It made me angry.” These words, spoken by Cliff Morrison, MSN ’79, explain why, when his nursing supervisor said something needed to be done, Morrison replied simply, “OK, I’ll do it.” And he did. Bolstered by an all-volunteer staff, from nurses to janitors, Morrison opened Ward 5B (which ultimately expanded into the larger Ward 5A). In use for the next two decades, the unit served as a model of care for institutions the world over.

Morrison, a psychiatric nurse specialist, eventually left AIDS care to work with developmentally disabled adults, but his formative experience transforming patient care at San Francisco General has returned in vivid detail, thanks to the 2019 release of 5B, a documentary commissioned by Johnson & Johnson in which Morrison, a School of Nursing and Health Studies alumnus, figures prominently.

“I’ve never been more proud to be a part of something that’s so unbelievable,” said Morrison, who returned to his alma mater January 24 to share this very personal film about defying the order of the day, fighting fearmongering and bigotry, and advocating for those who don’t have the strength left to fight for their own care and dignity.

“We decided, if we can’t save these folks, we’re going to touch them,” said Morrison. Extensive archival footage shows patients at their most vulnerable. As important as taking vitals in 5B was taking time to listen, stroke an arm, give a hug. As one emaciated man shares with the nurse at his bedside: “I haven’t been touched in over a year.” 

In 1983, at the peak of AIDS hysteria, it turned out that human touch was a revolutionary act, one Morrison was savvy enough to make sure news cameras caught, understanding they would tell the story of his patients and their humanity. Nearly 40 years later, those images hold as much power.

After watching the award-winning film, Morrison’s long-time friend and colleague Ana Garcia, a social work clinician in the Miller School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, noted that Miami is still the number 1 place in the United States for prevalence of HIV infection. She asked Morrison what he would tell the next generation of health professionals to keep that torch of patient advocacy going, “because it’s not over,” she added.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done,” agreed Morrison. “I love to be able to say to students, be defiant. Don’t take no for an answer. I never did. I have to tell you, now that I’m closer to the end of my life than I am to the middle of it, I wouldn’t have changed any of that. I’m glad I was defiant. I’m glad I grew up where I did in the rural Panhandle, with everybody telling me I couldn’t do something, and I said, to hell with it. I’m just going to forge ahead. One of the reasons we were able to do what we were doing [is that] I thought we were all dying. I felt like, we have to do something because no one was doing anything. We have nothing to lose. And that’s what I would say to you, you really have nothing to lose.”

Placing his fist to his heart, Morrison continued, “People who go into health care have something here that the rest of the world just can’t wrap their heads around. And I just say, follow your heart, follow your gut, follow your instincts, and do what’s right.”

Dean Cindy L. Munro called the event a powerful start to the school’s celebration of 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. A conversation with Cliff Morrison will appear in the next issue of Heartbeat.