Infectious Disease Clinic Celebrates Early Heroes

A recent gathering in the UNC Infectious Disease Clinic served as a reunion for the nurses and other medical staff who worked tirelessly to care for patients in the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and ultimately led to the establishment of a dedicated clinic within the hospital for those patients.

Infectious Disease Clinic Celebrates Early Heroes click to enlarge (L to R) Susan Wilson, Lynn Smiley, Lynda Bell, Mary Hoover
Infectious Disease Clinic Celebrates Early Heroes click to enlarge The work of art unveiled at the event

At the event, a piece of folk art designed to commemorate some of those stories was revealed. The woodcut is titled: “1980s: The Decade of Heroes.” One of those heroes, Susan Wilson, NP, recalled a conversation she had with a patient that changed the course of her career and helped spur the work that ultimately led to the clinic’s establishment.

“That patient looked up at me and said ‘no one ever talks to me,’” Wilson recalled. “And I just thought we have to do better, that is not what nursing is about. The ‘80s definitely taught me to care; they made me who I am.”

The story of that patient feeling isolated and ostracized was not uncommon in the early days of the AIDS epidemic when an incredible amount of stigma and fear surrounded the disease and those who had contracted the virus. Wilson said there was a great need to educate fellow hospital workers, while providing support and care for patients

Lynn Smiley, MD, was the clinic’s director and founder in the early days and worked closely with a team that included Wilson, nurse supervisor Brenda Featherstone, RN, mental health nurse Pam Heriott, RN, Chaplain Bill Bagwell and social worker Mary Hoover.

Hoover said that the group often served as surrogate family to patients whose own families were not there to provide support.

Wilson recalled inviting patients to her home for Thanksgiving when they had nowhere else to go, for example.

“These were trying times, but we did all that we could to keep our spirits and the patients’ spirits high,” Smiley said. “We had to laugh a lot.”

The ID Clinic where this event took place was established in 2002. Before that, staff saw patients in a variety of locations throughout the hospital. Lynda Bell, Adult Nurse Practitioner and Associate Director of the UNC Health Care Infectious Diseases Clinic, credited Wilson and Smiley with approaching hospital administration to make the case for the clinic space.

“(Wilson and Smiley) understood that there was a need for a clinic that was clean and attractive for patients,” Bell said.

Bell also thanked Wilson for serving as a mentor to her when she first came to UNC.

“Susan showed me how to care for patients both physically and spiritually,” Bell said.

Today, UNC is celebrated as a national leader in HIV/AIDS research. Claire Farel, MD, medical director, UNC Infectious Disease Clinic, said the work of Wilson, Smiley, Featherstone, Heriott, Bagwell, and Hoover helped lay the foundation.

“What they did was help establish a great sense of trust so that patients knew that UNC was a safe place where they would be cared for and treated with respect.”