The AIDS epidemic was a scary and eye-opening experience for many people in the UK, and brought forward a number of lessons for society. We heard from one of our employees, who anonymously came forward to share the story of their family connection to the very height of the epidemic.
I have been working at Cadent for some time now and can safely say it is the most inclusive and open organisation I have had the pleasure of working for.
Over 10 years ago I had one of the biggest scares of my life when I thought I had contracted HIV. I was fortunate and when I got tested it came back negative. Since joining Cadent and getting involved in Diversity and Inclusion work, I have begun to think back on this, and this was helped along when I recently watched Russell T Davies’ ground-breaking show ‘It’s A Sin’.
My mum had been a nurse in the 1980s at the time of the epidemic, so as part of Cadent’s drive for inclusion and understanding, I asked if she would be willing to share her experience of working at this time. She was kind enough to say yes, and here’s what she had to say...
Nursing through AIDS
“I started my nurse training in 1977 and qualified in 1980. I worked for a few years as a staff nurse in a General Hospital and then trained and worked as a midwife.
I was 17 years old when I started my nurse training, and having had a religious upbringing had little knowledge of heterosexual sex and no knowledge of homosexuality. There were oblique references in my church to, ‘sinful acts of indecency by depraved men’ but I had no idea what these acts might involve. I had no idea or knowledge of the possibility of same sex relationships between women. I am so thankful that in my lifetime homosexuality in this country has been legalised and the stigma and fear around same sex relationships has been improved beyond recognition.
When I started my nurse training, HIV and AIDS was unknown, homosexuality had only been legalised 10 years before. It was still very much a stigma, an ‘unknown’ hidden away from mainstream society and to an extent the medical community.
HIV began to be recognised in the 1980s, however due to its long incubation period it is thought that it began spreading and reached the UK and other western countries in the early 70s.
The medical community only began to suspect a new disease was emerging when previously healthy people attended hospital and died from easily treatable diseases. It took some time for the medical community to understand why these deaths were occurring.
I remember when I was first made aware of AIDS. I attended a sexual diseases lecture in the early 80s and the Doctor who gave the lecture was very positive about treatments for known diseases such as gonorrhoea and syphilis, where treatment had improved. The lecturer then became very serious and just shook his head, he started talking about a new disease. It was called Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome and affected the immune system of the patient, until now a near unknown type of viral attack. It appeared to be spread by men who had sex with other men but how this occurred, and the actual transmission method was unknown. There was no cure, no understanding, just fear.
I remember the first patient in our hospital around the same time. He was a previously healthy young man who was suffering from a type of pneumonia usually only associated with much older men. All our treatments were insufficient and we could not understand why, senior consultants were involved but his body just appeared to be completely failing. He died, and we could not understand why, it was only afterwards we learned he had HIV, the fear that caused. A disease that we could not treat caused other simple illnesses to become deadly.
Panic began to set in throughout the medical practice. I remember when a staff member in the hospital canteen was rumoured as having AIDS. Medically trained and educated colleagues demanded he be removed for fear of contracting the untreatable, undetectable disease through our food. He was blamed and shunned for contracting AIDS through his lifestyle.
In 1987 I worked at a maternity hospital ante natal clinic. I remember a young woman coming to the clinic with suspected HIV. She needed to have routine blood taken for her antenatal check. No one wanted to take the blood sample, everyone was afraid. The midwife in charge of the clinic took it upon herself to take the blood, at the time it was seen as almost a near death job. When the woman arrived, the clinic was evacuated. A room had been prepared for the woman to come into the clinic which had a chair covered in sterilised paper drapes, with walls and flooring sterilised and protected. The midwife put on a hazard suit similar to the ones we see in use today in Covid hotspots, it was complete with face coverings and special gloves as she approached the woman and took the bloods. For the woman it must have seemed terrifying, she was going to give birth to a child knowing she had a disease that caused such terror in the people that are supposed to be the guardians of health, people who were so afraid they would barely approach her. After she had gone the clinic went through a full disinfectant regime. The chair was burned.
During my time in nursing and midwifery new drugs and treatments slowly became available but there is still no cure. Things are better now, the stigma has been lifted. I can still remember Princess Diana shaking hands with HIV positive men and women and what an impact this had on people. Younger people born today will not realise how truly incredible a moment that was.
Currently, anti-viral drugs allow people to live with the disease and help keep the virus under control. The Covid pandemic is a stark reminder that viruses are deadly, and very difficult to treat.”
We’re thankful to our extended community for sharing this powerful and deeply personal story with us. For more information on HIV symptoms, causes and treatments visit the NHS website
Pride at Cadent
We have an established internal Pride at Work community, which is central to our commitment to support LGBTQ+ colleagues, customers and stakeholders. We have increased the visibility of Pride at Work through written content and live virtual ‘lunch and learn’ sessions, ensuring that the LGBTQ+ community’s voice is heard throughout our organisation. We have also invested in trans awareness training, to educate colleagues about how best to support the trans community. Look out for our continued content and insights during Pride Month 2021, and our very first Pride festival attendance later in the year.
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