SF nurse and AIDS pioneer retires

  • by Seth Hemmelgarn
  • Wednesday January 27, 2016
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Diane Jones could tell a lot of stories about being a nurse in San Francisco in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. In the early 1980s, when the disease first hit, being diagnosed with it usually meant an imminent, painful death. Patients, health care providers, and others in the city struggled for years to find their way through the crisis as the federal government turned its back.

In 1983, San Francisco General Hospital became the first hospital in the country to start a program for people living with HIV/AIDS when Ward 86, the outpatient clinic, opened.

But Jones, who helped make history at Ward 86 and who recently retired after 33 years at the hospital, immediately makes it clear she's not interested in looking backward.

"I'm not one who's much for reminiscing about the bad old days of the epidemic or the sentimentality that seems to go along with this," Jones, a registered nurse who turns 64 in February, said in an email responding to an interview request from the Bay Area Reporter . "I care about our history, but my passion is for how it informs what we need to be doing today to end this epidemic."

Indeed, Jones, a lesbian, spent much of a subsequent phone conversation discussing the future.

"We actually now know what is needed to stop this epidemic and to prevent HIV, and we know what to do, so now it's a question of capacity and political will and having the resources to do it," she said.

The biggest barriers are related to health insurance and access to care, and advocacy for patients continues to be crucial, she said.

"From the beginning, people who were health care providers couldn't just be health care providers," Jones said. "They had to be activists" and understand pharmaceutical companies' role, drug trials, and other issues. "We have to be completely at the forefront around the expansion of access to health benefits, and this debate going on in our country" involving drug costs and other concerns "to me, is part of being an HIV nurse in 2016."

If the political will is there to help, "people who are at risk don't have to become infected, and if they become infected, they don't have to get sick. They don't have to die. They don't have to transmit" the virus to others, Jones said. "They can have children who aren't HIV-infected."

Jones recalled recently working with an 18-year-old man who'd just been diagnosed with HIV.

"His mother came with him to his first appointment at Ward 86," which currently sees about 2,800 patients, Jones said. She and others were talking to the man and his mother about what would happen and other matters when "the mother turned to the son and said, 'Don't think you're dropping out of law school because of this.'"

"Isn't that great?" Jones said.


Housing still an issue

But Jones said many of the issues patients struggled with 30 years ago remain, including affordable housing.

"Many of our patients, their biggest threat right now is not coming from their HIV, the biggest threat of their livelihood is coming from the affordability crisis in San Francisco," Jones said.

"This is not a problem that just appeared," she said. It's been "accelerated by the huge economic forces around the tech industry," and it's currently being "poorly" mitigated by Mayor Ed Lee and other city officials.

In an email to the B.A.R., Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for Lee, said, "The mayor thanks Diane Jones for more than three decades of committed service to people living with HIV/AIDS at Ward 86 of SF General. It's professionals like her who have been leaders in groundbreaking compassionate care and treatment of our residents since the beginning of this epidemic. ... We are all invested in finding a cure to this terrible disease, and by working together, we will. In the mayor's second term he is continuing to tackle economic inequality by raising San Francisco's minimum wage to the highest in the nation," along with other actions, and Lee's "second term will also see a major expansion of affordable housing production and a complete re-envisioning of public housing to help our lowest income families."

"It's going to require much more aggressive and mindful involvement in order to preserve the gains that we've made," Jones said.

Statistics that she provided offer a glimpse of who gets help through the Positive Health Access to Services and Treatment program, which is based at Ward 86 and has been the hospital's HIV testing and linkage to care plan since 2002. Jones coordinated the program beginning in 2006.

Of the 70 people who were newly diagnosed in 2015 either on the hospital's campus or "linked to care from community testing sites" such as City Clinic, according to Jones, 64 percent were people of color. Of those, 37 percent were Latino/Hispanic. The other 36 percent were white.

Most of those who were newly diagnosed were younger: 27 percent were below the age of 26, and 26 percent were 26 to 35 years old.

Jones said the statistics don't represent a microcosm of San Francisco's general population. Instead, it's representative of the people who rely on public health, such as people without insurance or people who rely on Medi-Cal.


'In good hands'

Jones, who lives in San Francisco's Mission district with her longtime partner Roma Guy, a former city health commissioner, is taking three months off to rest.

Her future still includes work, though. She plans to continue helping with Getting to Zero, the city's initiative that, among other goals, aims to reduce HIV transmission by 90 percent before 2020.

Jones said there's a "wave of new brilliant doctors, nurses, and social workers coming into this work who are every bit as committed and dedicated, and that makes me feel great that the work is in good hands."

Dr. Diane Havlir, who oversees UCSF's HIV/AIDS division at San Francisco General's Positive Health Program, said in a tribute to Jones, "The impact she has had on patients, innovative models of care, and in inspiring us all cannot be overstated. ... Diane is one of those rare and universally-loved people who always comes through, always knows the right thing to say, and always is motivated by trying to help people, whether it be patients or any of us on Ward 86."

In an email to the B.A.R., Dr. Monica Gandhi, who serves as Ward 86's medical director, said Jones "is a legend on Ward 86 and, as we now enter the post-Diane Jones era, we will reflect on how to take the lessons she has taught us and continue to forge ahead in our commitment to end the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco and worldwide."

A patient support fund has been named after Jones. For more information, visit http://sfghf.org/DianeJones/.