5B is a documentary about the special unit created at San Francisco General Hospital (Ward 5B) in 1983 to take care of people with AIDS. Three years later, it moved to the larger Ward 5A, where it remained in operation until 2003 after the introduction of treatments effective enough to drastically reduce the demand for hospitalization and standards of care for AIDS patients were in place throughout the hospital. The documentary covers the medical, social, and political considerations surrounding the opening of Ward 5B, and the AIDS epidemic during that time.

The story is told from various perspectives through interviews with key figures in its development and operation, and archival footage of the ward and AIDS activism in the community. The most prominent among the key figures is Cliff Morrison, a clinical nurse specialist who spearheaded the idea for the unit and then managed it. Several other nurses who served in staff and supervisory positions are featured. Participating physicians include Paul Volberding, an oncologist at the time who became pivotal in the development of effective HIV treatments, and  Julie Gerberding, a physician treating patients on the unit who later became the Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Lorraine Day, the chief of orthopedic surgery at the hospital when the unit opened is heard often as an opposing voice. Hank Plante, a local television news reporter also appears frequently to offer his perspectives on many of the social and political issues swirling around the unit. Among other participants are AIDS activists, volunteers, and family members of patients on the unit.

Several storylines frame the documentary including how nurses drove the unit’s inception and then were instrumental in running it. “Nurses were in charge,” said Volberding, admiringly. Interwoven throughout the film are the experiences of the patients and individual nurses, including one nurse who was infected with HIV from a needle stick. “Those nurses were the real heroes,” said one activist.  

The unit and those who worked there also encountered opposition from inside the hospital. The nurses of this unit practiced in ways they considered safe but not in such a manner that would preclude them from touching patients or require that they don so much protective gear they become unseeable. Nurses and other clinicians from other parts of the hospital objected and did not want to be compelled to adopt practices they thought endangered them on the occasions they took care of AIDS patients. The film follows this story through union grievances and public debates to their conclusion, which sided with the unit nurses and their advocates.

The story is told against a backdrop of gay rights activism in the 1970s that led to AIDS activism with its influence on how the unit operated. Also getting attention is the fear AIDS struck in society and the resulting social backlash at a time of federal government insouciance. This fear continued up to the time the federal government recognized the epidemic and began taking action, relieving some of the tension but never eliminating it. The documentary ends with key participants reflecting on their experiences with the unit; most were proud, some bitter, and a few a little of both.


Infectious epidemics and pandemics have plagued humankind from its beginning. They have wiped out large swaths of the planet’s populations; they may wipe out the planet’s entire population someday. This documentary zeroes in on a short time interval of an infectious epidemic surfacing in a small population in San Francisco, namely HIV infection in gay men.

The documentary reveals stark juxtapositions that can manifest in the midst of an infectious epidemic, and in particular when an epidemic selects an identifiable group that is unwelcome in mainstream society. Two juxtapositions that stand out in particular are: the emotion of love with that of fear, and those who are deemed worthy with those who are considered disreputable. 

When the unit is opened there were no treatments for the infection or for the many of the horrid and lethal diseases resulting from AIDS—it was ”a very, very unpleasant death” as one nurse put it. The nurses thus saw a big part of their role as offering love; “Here you were allowed to love your patients.” And, they offered it through human touch. Morrison’s view was, “If we can’t save these folks, we’re going to touch them.” To touch the patients in this way required that they balance it with the risk of exposure to infection, but still comply with universal precautions. Nevertheless, fear was prevalent—some people were “truly hysterical” according to Gerberling—and it touched off conflict among the health care staff. “People were afraid…we found ourselves attacking each other…everyone was so stressed,” is how Volberding described the situation. This balance is one that is continuously negotiated in health care settings, but it was more pronounced during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and at San Francisco General, it had to be mediated by hospital and union officials.

As the unit opened, and for a long while after, people with AIDS were scorned. The gay lifestyle was linked to the disease and so a view held by many was that the gay community deserved to be struck down by this plague. They were not worthy of all the human resource, technology, and money the disease required, and worse, it took all that away from people who deserved them. The documentary brings this sentiment to life by showing the actions some people took to prevent getting these patients help and the actions governments didn’t take to help them. 

These fevers abated some when medical advances produced treatments that obviated the need for AIDS units, and societal progress led to more acceptance of gay lifestyles. The next epidemic that targets marginalized groups will determine whether lessons from the time of this unit have dissipated as well.

Primary Source

Amazon Prime






Vertical Entertainment

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Based on

The Father-Play