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Mildmay hospital reopens in new era of HIV treatment

07 November 2014


"Outward-looking": Archbishop Welby blesses the new Mildmay Hospital, which opened on Monday

"Outward-looking": Archbishop Welby blesses the new Mildmay Hospital, which opened on Monday

WHEN Mildmay Hospital first opened its doors to people with HIV in 1988, its beds were filled with young gay men preparing to die. Local barbers were afraid to cut the hair of staff working at the hospital. Ambulance drivers would turn up wearing protective suits. Helen Taylor-Thompson, who chaired the hospital at the time, recalls bricks flying through the windows.

"There was this new illness seen to be killing people," recalled the hospital's executive director, Ross White, in July. "People didn't really understand what the mechanisms were. It's easy to see how that fear culture was perpetuated."

On Monday, Mrs Taylor-Thompson and Mr Ross were present to witness the blessing of the new Mildmay hospital by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It has 26 en-suite rooms, and rehabilitation services for the 82 per cent of patients who are able to return home after their stay. Fewer than one per cent of patients die at Mildmay. Some of the rooms are designed like studio flats, to enable patients to practise independent living. There are ingenious aids such as a rubber device that removes jar lids. Counselling, physiotherapy, speech and language therapies, and music and art therapies are all on offer. Volunteers accompany patients on outings to re-learn skills that they may have lost, such as catching a bus or going shopping. In a nod to the visits by the late Diana, Princess of Wales - Mildmay is where she was filmed shaking hands with a patient - the two wards are named "William" and "Catherine".

Twenty-six years on, the patient profile has also changed: about two-thirds are black African heterosexuals. Mr Ross reports that there is "huge denial" in this population. "People won't go and get tested. They won't talk about HIV, and it's a big problem."

One consequence of this stigma is that patients present late, when their symptoms are advanced. Mildmay is the only centre in Europe dedicated to the rehabilitation of people with HIV Associated Neurocognitive Disorder (HAND): a form of dementia that can be reversed through treatment with antiretroviral drugs. Many patients come to Mildmay unable to walk, speak, or feed themselves, and require 24-hour care, but more than half return home to independent lives. This can happen within 40 days.

On Tuesday, the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Margate, the Revd John Richardson, who chairs the Board of Trustees, described the "fight, the resistance, the prayer, the battle" to secure Mildmay's future. As a small hospital, with fewer than 200 beds, it was regarded as uneconomic and closed in 1982, but Mrs Taylor-Thompson battled to reopen it. Today, it receives 80 per cent of its funds from the NHS, but the finding the remaining 20 per cent is, Mr Ross says, a perennial challenge.

Archbishop Welby blessed the new building in front of staff, patients, and supporters. "I was really struck by the outward-looking attitude of this place," he said. "That spoke to me very powerfully about what we need to do."

He wrote in Mildmay's visitors' book: "You are the arms of support, the everlasting arms." 

CHRISTIANS with HIV told their stories at St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, last month, writes Madeleine Davies.

More than 100 people, including those living with and caring for people with HIV, attended "Love Tenderly, Act Justly: Stories of HIV and Christianity Today", an event organised by Catholics for AIDS Prevention and Support (CAPS), Changing Attitude, St-Martin-in-the-Fields, and the Terrence Higgins Trust.

They saw a new film produced for the conference featuring HIV-positive Christians, and heard from Canon Gideon Byamugisha, an Anglican priest in Uganda who announced that he was HIV positive in 1992. Seven workshops were run by theologians and HIV professionals.

Robert Calderisi, an author and expert on development, asked: "Is there any excuse for the continued spread of this disease in a society as fortunate as ours? Why should people living with HIV and AIDS still have to live in the shadows, worrying about discrimination at work or in society? I can think of some Italian and French nuns I have met in Africa - bless their example - who would have a thing or two to say on the subject."

Cate Jacobs, who has lived with HIV for nearly 20 years, said: "To be diagnosed HIV-positive is to be diagnosed with the most socially unacceptable disease on the planet. . . Of challenges and joys, a story of transformation; for nothing has honed and shaped me quite like HIV has. . . You get to drink from the well of life and taste every drop."

The chairman of CAPS, Vincent Manning, said: "HIV remains a significant issue in society and in the Church, and as people of faith we have an important contribution to make."

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