It was a time of great loss but even greater love.
Forty years ago, the first HIV/AIDS case was diagnosed in Australia amid a climate of fear, hysteria, and uncertainty.
Young men were being admitted to Ward 17 South at St Vincent’s Hospital at an alarming rate. Most never left.
Ward 17 South was the only dedicated HIV/AIDS ward in the country. It was often described as a warzone, with conditions similar to battlefield nursing.
The work was incredibly tough. There were always too few beds and too many patients, no known treatment, and the suffering indescribable.
Personal protection equipment (PPE) was unheard of but very quickly introduced, which would later pave the way for the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Sisters of Charity who staffed St Vincent’s were called saints by those in their care and lived out their charism of ministering to the marginalised, poor and sick in the face of hostility.
“A museum has now been established to remember not only the many lives lost to AIDS, but the vital role played by the sisters … during the early years of Australia’s HIV epidemic.”
Colleagues and hospital staff treated them with fear and apprehension, they received criticism from the wider society, and condemnation from within the church.
Yet without the sisters’ witness, thousands of men would have died alone and uncared for, even ostracised by their families.
A museum has now been established to remember not only the many lives lost to AIDS, but the vital role played by the sisters and staff during the early years of Australia’s HIV epidemic.
Qtopia, a museum in Green Park, Darlinghurst, opened during WorldPride 2023, and features videos of survivors, doctors, and nurses as well as a sombre physical recreation of Ward 17 South.
Retired Director of Nursing at St Vincent’s Hospital, Sister Clare Nolan RSC, reflected that while it was a “very, very difficult time” it was also filled with love.
Referred to as “the lepers of our time”, she said caring for the men on Ward 17 South was a “privilege” and a chance to practice true Ignatian spirituality.
“Our attitude was one of loving the person with no condemnation. It was as simple as that,” she said.
“We were often asked why we chose to look after them and our response was always the same, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’
“Whatever the question, inclusion is always the answer … buildings and equipment mean nothing without a purposeful mission.
“At our core we were showing the patients they were worthy of respect, care and love.
“So many were young men dying all alone, it was heartbreaking.
“In those days the word homosexual was an unmentionable. People didn’t talk about it, so a lot of the patients had parents who had to come to terms not only with the fact that their sons were dying, but that they were gay.
“Many attributed their deaths to cancer, as they couldn’t stand the shame.
“I loved the art and skill of nursing. I have always regarded it as the healing ministry of Christ and Ward 17 confirmed that.
“Ward 17 in St Vincent’s Hospital is special to Sydney and it all started with the Sisters of Charity.”
“We walked alongside so many men as they died, which taught me love is all that really matters.”
Of the thousands of men admitted to Ward 17 South, Sr Clare said one will stay with her forever.
Completely alone and very close to death, his final wish was granted on Christmas Day.
“This poor dear man was so very ill, he just wanted to go home and die in his home country,” she said.
“We lodged the papers and waited and waited to get permission, we could tell he was holding on just so he could make the trip, but no airline in the world would take him due to his AIDS status.
“And then on Christmas Day somebody gave me a small bottle of champagne so I went and asked him if he’d like to share it with me.
“We sat quietly sipping away when someone knocked on the door and told him he was going home.
“He left a few days later on a completely empty aircraft, as nobody would travel with him.
“I remember thinking how proud our founder Mary Aikenhead would have been that this man was loved and supported.”
David Polson, one of the first men to be diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in Australia, says the sisters are his heroes. Without them, so many men would have died completely alone.
He said they made Ward 17 South a sanctuary completely built on compassion.
“Ward 17 in St Vincent’s Hospital is special to Sydney and it all started with the Sisters of Charity,” he said.
“They truly made it a haven and if it wasn’t for the nuns, it would never have been there. They are my heroes.
“They believed it didn’t matter who the patients were, they just needed support and care and set a very powerful example for the rest of the health system.”
CEO of St Vincent’s Hospital, Adjunct Professor Anthony Schembri, encountered the sisters first-hand as a young social worker, which left a lifelong impact.
“In addition to facing death, many patients felt completely alone as some family and friends turned their backs on them, so I know from first-hand experience that maintaining that commitment was not easy.”
“I first joined Ward 17 when I was just 22, caring for patients and their families through the devastation wreaked by the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” he said.
“In addition to facing death, many patients felt completely alone as some family and friends turned their backs on them, so I know from first-hand experience that maintaining that commitment was not easy.“
On a particularly painful day I was in the nurses’ station shedding tears after the death of yet another patient and one of the sisters came and put her arms around me.
“I said ‘sister I don’t think I can do this anymore, it’s too hard’ and I will never forget that she said to me, ‘it’s because it is hard that we should do it’.
“I learnt very early on that was the St Vincent’s way.”
Ward 17 South closed in 2007 as beds were not being used due to advances in HIV treatment resulting in fewer hospital admissions.
The virus is still in the community and is now a chronic manageable disease with a normal life expectancy.