Mardi Gras and Ward 17 South

35 years on ...

The first AIDS patient in Australia was diagnosed and treated at St Vincent’s Hospital by Dr Ron Penny in 1983.

A year later, during a time of fear and uncertainty, faced with an epidemic we didn’t fully understand, St Vincent’s and the Sisters of Charity demonstrated leadership, compassion and excellence in care for more than half of the country’s HIV/AIDS patients.

Ward 17 South was the first dedicated HIV/AIDS unit in Australia and became the healthcare epicentre for patients suffering from this terrible disease.

A large portion of the community affected were based in the surrounding areas of St Vincent’s which made our hospital an epicentre.

At this time, there was stigma surrounding the virus due to homosexuality being largely unmentionable. This caused enormous pain and confusion within the local and wider community. Parents were coming to terms with the fact they may lose their child and at the same time, learning that their child was gay.

At a time when victims of this epidemic needed the most support, many found themselves alone.

From the beginning, the Sisters, the Board and the staff showed great courage in saying to the world that St Vincent’s would be a place where people with HIV will feel welcomed, safe, and valued. Everyone would be welcomed and cared for with love, in a completely non-judgemental way.

That courage and compassion of the sisters, doctors, nurses and staff are the defining characteristics of St Vincent’s and something we are fiercely proud of still, 35 years later.

A/Prof Anthony Schembri, CEO St Vincent’s Health Network Sydney, started his career at St Vincent’s Hospital in Ward 17 as a social worker. The following is a short excerpt from his speech on World Aids Day 2019.

“I was 22 years old, working on Ward 17 South with other young staff, caring for patients from my community. One recollection is that on a particularly painful day – I was in the nurses’ station having a little cry, and Sr Margaret came and put her arm around me. I said “Sister I don’t think I can do this anymore”. And she said “It’s because it’s hard that we should do it.”  If not for the Sisters, Charles Curran, Ron Penny, David Cooper, Phil Cunningham … if not for them, who would do this? … I remember my first patient. He had pneumocystis pneumonia – at the time it was one of the main AIDS-defining illnesses. His family had refused to have anything to do with him. He was under the care of David Cooper and David said “We won’t let you die alone”.”

On the 35th anniversary of Ward 17 South, the staff of St Vincent’s Hospital were proud and honoured to march (or rather, dance) in Mardi Grass 2020 led by Anthony Schembri.  This moment was, for many, both personal and immensely moving.

Thirty five years since Ward 17 South was established, St Vincent’s continues to be an internationally recognised centre for excellence in HIV/AIDS clinical care and research.

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