NHS workers watching It’s a Sin recall horrifying ignorance faced by dying AIDS patients in the 80s – saying many had to endure a ‘toast diet’ because scared staff would slide meals under doors to ‘avoid infection’
NHS and healthcare workers who cared for patients at the height of the AIDS crisis in the UK in the 80s have been sharing their stories following the release of Russell T Davies Channel 4 drama It’s a Sin.
The first episode of the five-part series, which follows the lives of a group of gay friends living in 1980s London as the AIDS crisis takes hold, sees the character of dying Henry Coltrane (Neil Patrick Harris) being asked to fetch his own lunch from the ward’s door because nursing staff refuse to enter for fear of HIV infection.
The scene, which highlights the ignorance that many AIDS patients faced, has seen NHS, healthcare workers, counsellors and hospital chaplain who cared for those with the disease sharing their stories of stigma on social media – with some comparing the crisis to the current pandemic.
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The first episode of new Channel 4 drama It’s a Sin, set in London in the 80s during the AIDS crisis, saw a bed-bound and dying Henry Coltrane (Neil Patrick Harris) forced to fetch his own lunch from the ward door because staff didn’t want close contact
Sue Reeve tweeted how she’d heard about the ‘toast diet’ while working as a trainee nurse, saying: ‘The toast diet: could slide toast under side room door without having to go in. Such sadness’ (Pictured: Henry Coltrane played by Neil Patrick Harris)
Episode one: The character of Colin Morris (Callum Scott) is forced to lie to get into the hospital where Henry is staying and wear full PPE before he’s allowed to see his friend
The scene saw Colin fetching his friend his lunch after nurses refused to bring it any further than the door of the hospital ward where Henry is in isolation
NHS worker @s_roughton wrote: ‘As a student nurse I worked on the first AIDS ward in London and #ItsASin absolutely shows how it was in London in the 80s; the carefree partying, the stigma of AIDS, fear, the isolation on the wards, gowns, masks and gloves to enter a patients room – sound familiar?’
A nurse, who was training in the 80s, revealed she’d heard of colleagues being asked to serve meals of toast because it was easy to slide under a door and avoid close contact with a patient with HIV or AIDS.
@mrsverypicky wrote: ‘Found the hospital scenes with Henry very emotional. As a nurse then, I heard horror stories about nursing care for guys with #AIDS Like the toast diet: could slide toast under side room door without having to go in. Such sadness.’
Paramedic @Karmaintime wrote: ‘I worked in a London hospital on two HIV wards in early 90s and outreach in the community in social work. ALL of my clients died. ALL of them. Young vibrant diverse people. It was devastating. Treatment has come so far, it seems unreal.’
@parami wrote of their time working as a counsellor: ‘I lived through that time and I still feel heartbroken when I remember it. I worked as an hiv counsellor and I sat with so many young men as they died. We also had a hoot sometimes. Sense of humour was a lifesaver.’
Star cast: The five-part series stars Years & Years frontman Alexander alongside a cast of rising stars and celebrated favourites including Neil Patrick Harris
One to watch: It’s A Sin follows the lives of five 18-year-olds as they navigate life during the AIDS crisis in 1981, and sees Years&Years singer Olly Alexander take the lead role
WHAT IS HIV AND AIDS?
According to the NHS website, HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus, a virus that damages the cells in the immune system, making it harder to fight infections and disease.
AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome and is used to describe a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that happen when your immune system has been severely damaged by the HIV virus.
AIDS cannot be transmitted but the HIV virus can. While there’s no cure for HIV, effective drug treatments have developed to enable people living with the virus to live a near-normal life.
@TheGrumpyB***h recounted how families would often not collect the personal possesions of family members who’d died of the disease.
They wrote: ‘In 80s/early 90s I worked various places dealing with AIDS (inc London Lighthouse) in the early days in Camden when many employees refused to clear flats of those who had died, a friend and I would box up personal possessions for family to collect. Many boxes left uncollected.’
Others shared how they became carers for friends deserted by families unable to accept their diagnosis.
@MorganMarkF wrote: ‘It was a terrible time. I helped nurse my friend, up until 2 hours before he died. His parents didn’t attend his funeral.’
@KaJuror revealed what it was like to be a chaplain in hospitals during the period when AIDS was at its most rife, saying: ‘I was a Hospital Chaplain in the mid 80s – was so impressed by the love and care shown by lovers & friends of the dying, as opposed to so much condemnation by some fellow “Christians”. I dreaded the phone ringing in case it was news of another friend having succumbed.’
@deirdre_moss added: ‘I was a student nurse in London 85-88 #itsASin brought back memories of nursing so many young men in Westminster and St Stephen’s hospital now long gone. We also cared for many women terminating pregnancy following positive HIV testing it was a heartbreaking.’
Following a group of friends living in London throughout the eighties, the series weaves its way through a decade of hedonism and horror for the young gay men as the AIDS crisis seeps into their life of parties, burgeoning careers and young love.
Starring Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander alongside a cast of rising stars and celebrated favourites including Keeley Hawes, Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris, It’s a Sin was universally praised by fans and celebrity viewers on Friday night.
Davies, the writer and producer behind Queer As Folk, the 2005 revival of Doctor Who and Cucumber, loosely based It’s A Sin on his own experiences in the eighties.
How Diana’s handshake with Aids patient changed world’s view of the disease
In April 1987, Princess Diana shook hands with a gay man who was dying of AIDS.
The People’s Princess touched the unnamed man without wearing gloves, challenging the previously believed notion the disease could be passed via skin-to-skin contact.
She was quoted as saying: ‘HIV does not make people dangerous to know.
‘You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it’.
At the time, Princess Diana was opening the UK’s first unit that exclusively cared for HIV/AIDS patients at London Middlesex Hospital.
Princess Diana was famously the first member of the Royal Family to touch someone with AIDS.
It is unclear if this picture is the first time she made physical contact with an HIV-infected patient.
The People’s Princess would also regularly visit the Lighthouse, both with the media present and without.
According to Dr Rosemary Gillespie, chief executive of the HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust: ‘London Lighthouse offered residential and day care for men, women and children living with HIV and AIDS, and provided a refuge and respite to people marginalised and abandoned because of their diagnosis’.
Princess Diana was a patron of the National AIDS Trust at the time of her death in 1997.
He also spent hours in conversation with his childhood friend Jill Nalder, an actor, ally and activist who lived in London during the decade and is played by Lydia West in the drama. The real-life Jill also appears, playing Lydia’s mother in episodes four and five.
Davies cast Alexander as the show’s protagonist Ritchie Tozer, an 18-year-old hailing from an ignorant, unloving household on the Isle of Wight who throws himself headfirst into London life, soon befriending Jill and three others and renting their flat, lovingly dubbed The Pink Palace.
The cast of young talent is supported by a string of veteran screen stars, including Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley as Ritchie’s parents, Stephen Fry as an MP lover of outrageous flatmate Rosce (Omari Douglas) and Neil Patrick Harris as a mentor to another, the quietly observant Colin (Callum Scott Howell).