Veteran journalist Hank Plante is being called “the voice” of “5B,” a documentary about how San Francisco General Hospital took care of people with AIDS in the 1980s.

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San Francisco General Hospital Ward 5B caregiver Rita Rockett visits with a man receiving treatment for AIDS in the 1980s. Image via Ken Kobré

Television journalist Hank Plante was there from the early days of Ward 5B at San Francisco General Hospital.

He saw firsthand how a group of nurses carried out their mission of compassion that would change the dynamics of the AIDS crisis.

That courageous care he reported on is now being spotlighted in a new documentary called “5B.”

Those nurses opened 5B to care for people with AIDS in 1983. It was the first of its kind in the country.

At the time, AIDS was largely a death sentence, mostly affecting men who have sex with men. Volunteering to take care of the patients with this new, mystery illness was considered risky at best.

“How many people would have the guts to do this kind of work. There was so much we didn’t know. Was it airborne? Could you get it from surfaces? Would you be bringing it home to your family, your children?” Plante recalled in an interview with Healthline.

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Hank Plante reporting on the AIDS crisis from San Francisco in the 1980s. Image via Hank Plante

At the time, Plante was a reporter for KPIX-TV, the CBS affiliate in San Francisco. He’s being called “the voice” of 5B because of his persistence in using his camera and microphone to cover the ward and the AIDS crisis.

“These nurses quickly rose to the occasion and did their jobs. They did their work with great skill, compassion, and love,” he said.

In the film, the story of the ward is told in first-person accounts from the nurses, doctors, patients, and their families.

But it’s also told through archival footage of people receiving care in the unit.

Most revolutionary at the time, it showed the nurses touching the patients without wearing gloves, masks, and protective suits. That was a move Plante says helped change public perceptions.

“It visually let people know it was OK to touch people with AIDS,” he said.

For Plante, covering the crisis was a matter of timing and preparation.

“By the time I got to San Francisco, AIDS was just starting to explode. This was ground zero. I had worked at other TV stations, so I knew my craft. I was one of the first openly gay TV reporters in the country,” Plante said. “I think that went a long way in letting the nurses and patients know I was not going to get the story wrong, and I was not going to be insensitive.”

And it was personal. Plante was losing friends to the disease.

“It was a way for me to deal with my own anger and grief by doing stories on AIDS. I didn’t feel quite so powerless in the face of it,” he said.

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Ward 5B nurses Sasha Cuttler and Mary Magee in the 1980s. Image via
San Francisco General Hospital AIDS Ward 5B/5A Archives, SFH 12, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

With the help of the 5B nurses, Plante put names and faces to the condition.

He took viewers inside that hospital ward and showed the care those people were getting. And he used the opportunity to educate the public.

“We were going on TV every night saying here’s how not to get the disease. We went on television and showed people how to put a condom on a banana. It was pretty bold,” Plante explained. “I think we were helping to save people’s lives.”

He was also calling out politicians, who had largely ignored the crisis.

“I think my coverage of how little the Reagan administration was doing had an impact,” Plante said. “I was standing in front of Ronald Reagan the night in Washington, D.C., when he said the word AIDS publicly for the first time. That was in 1987. By that time, 21,000 Americans had already died.”

“I did a lot of stories about government inaction. It certainly helped a lot of state officials realize they couldn’t wait for the feds,” he said. “We hammered the messages home every night on TV. We were doing so when the TV news networks and national newspapers were ignoring it.”

Now, more than three decades later, AIDS is no longer thought of as a “gay disease.”

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Hank Plante at the showing of the documentary “5B” at the Cannes Film Festival this year in France. Image via Hank Plante

HIV and AIDS don’t carry the stigma they once did.

There have been dramatic advances in medications and treatments.

“Dr. Paul Volberding, one of the world’s leading experts on AIDS, told me that when he gets a new patient that has seroconverted to being HIV-positive, he tells them they will die from something else, not from HIV,” Plante explained.

“That’s how good the treatments are today. Then for people who are negative and don’t want to get the disease, Truvada is a marvelous drug,” Plante said. “You take one pill a day and you probably won’t get HIV if you stick to that regimen.”

And Plante believes there’s another mark of progress.

“The public opinion about gay rights is very, very positive these days. I really think the gay community gained a lot of respect in the public’s eyes by how gay and lesbian people responded to AIDS. We really took care of our own,” he said.

“I think that went a long way in building esteem among the general public,” Plante added. “And I think you can link that. You can draw a direct line from that to the good regard the community is held in today, generally.”