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Christ encountered through the patients on an AIDS ward

14 February 2020

Tim Wyatt hears the memories of Sister Pearl Lenihan, who found a vocation to be alongside those who were dying during the harrowing days of the epidemic in the 1980s


Sister Pearl, in her nursing days, at St Stephen’s Hospital

Sister Pearl, in her nursing days, at St Stephen’s Hospital

WHEN she was growing up, every­body told Sister Pearl Lenihan that the one line of work that she should probably avoid was nursing. This made sense to her: she hated blood, and would feel faint even if she heard someone talk about going to hospital or having an opera­tion.

It is a mark, then, of how strongly she felt her calling to be from God that she signed up to train as a nurse in the mid-1980s, in probably the most difficult en­­viron­ment that was avail­­­able at the time: an AIDS ward.

Born in 1939, just months be­­fore the outbreak of the Second World War, Sister Pearl grew up in Ireland in a large, happy, Roman Catholic family. Her first sense of vocation arrived when she was 12 years old. A handful of nuns visited her school — local women returning from mis­sions overseas. “I was very impressed with what they were saying,” Sister Pearl recalls. “I said to myself, ‘I would love to be a nun.’”

Aged 19, she got in touch with the novice mistress of an order that her cousin had already joined: the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary. Her ap­­plication was accepted, and she travelled to Letchworth, in Hertford­shire, to become a novice. Founded in 1803 by a Belgian priest, the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary are primarily dedicated to caring for those in need.

Nursing did not cross her mind, however, until she was in her late forties and managing a care home for elderly people outside Man­chester. It was there that she decided that God was calling her to care not just for the needy or the poor, but for the sick, despite her squeam­ishness.

After completing nursing training in Salford, she returned to the care home to find that it had to be closed down because numbers had dwindled. When her Superiors asked her where she would like to work, the answer came to her suddenly.

“I said, ‘They are talking about AIDS in London, and I would love to do that work. It’s a need of our time now.’”

The Order had a house in Lon­don, and soon Sister Pearl had a job at St Stephen’s Hos­pital, in Chelsea, which housed the first HIV clinic in Britain. “I was so happy, I was jump­ing around,” she recalls. “It was so exciting to see the type of nursing they were doing there. I just wanted to start immediately.”


HER enthusiasm might have ap­­peared strange. The first AIDS-related death in the UK was in Bir­­ming­ham in 1981, but, by 1985, there were more than 3000 dia­gnoses a year. Misguided fears about how the disease was spread were rife.

The gay community, seen as the epicentre of the condition, was the target of widespread revulsion. News­­­­­paper headlines screamed about the “gay plague” and spread panic. One story, published in The Sun in 1985, quoted a clergyman as saying that he would shoot his 18-year-old son if he contracted AIDS, and also that gay com­mun­icants should not receive from the common cup.

A massive public-information cam­­­paign began. Leaflets were de­­livered to every home, warning of the dangers of HIV, and weeks of educational programming were run on TV. “There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,” a 1987 advertisement began. “It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure. Anyone can get it. So far, it’s been con­fined to small groups. But it’s spread­ing. . .”

Sister Pearl was undaunted. Much of the work was uplifting, she recalls. Patients were on first-name terms with the medical staff, and the ward was by far the friendliest that she had ever seen. She was deeply moved by the care taken by fellow nurses.

Nevertheless, the work remained relentlessly challenging. The patients were very young, and, at the time, there was little that the hospital could do for them except try to minimise their suffering. “It took my heart away sometimes with the sad­ness of it all,” she says.

She remembers one young man, aged 17 — the same age as two of her nephews — asking her to help him to write a plan for his funeral. In her first year, she counted more than 100 deaths on the unit.

She had a deep conviction that she was there to provide spiritual susten­ance as well as physical care. “They are dying; they just need peace in their lives and comfort and a prayer, and that’s what I used to do,” she says. “Sit with them, and hold them, and make sure they weren’t on their own. That was just my work; that’s what I was there for.”

In everything that she did, she hoped to show her patients some­thing of Christ. And yet, she says: “I saw Jesus in all of them, and, no matter what their ages, they were Jesus. I saw the suffering and all that as Jesus suffered when he was on earth. Jesus had come to die for us, and they were going back to him.”


DESPITE the welcoming atmo­sphere on the ward, beyond its doors there was prejudice. If the staff on her team visited the hospital can­teen, staff from other wards would refuse to sit at the same table. Hospital porters ferrying blood tests would frequently arrive at the entrance to the ward gowned and gloved from head to foot, shove the vials on the floor, and leave im­­medi­ately.

PAPrincess Diana in the AIDS unit in Mildmay Hospital in east London, a Christian foundation. her visit in 1991 signalled a change in mood about HIV

Even the other nuns with whom she lived were wary, until Sister Pearl explained that they could not catch HIV from her. “They had to learn: it was just ignorance,” she says.

There were other com­plica­tions, however. On one occasion, she bathed a man who was suffering from Norwegian scabies, a par­ticularly severe skin infection that attacks those with weakened im­­mune systems, and was not, at the time, properly understood. She woke up the next day to find the same un­known rash on her own skin.

Not wishing to provoke stigma, she covered it up under her clothes, and rushed to work without telling anyone else. While she tried to per­suade a consultant to investigate the scabies, she had to take long cold baths overnight at her home to soothe her skin. In the end, her case was documented to be presented at an AIDS conference in Canada.

”Oh, it was fierce, terrible,” she recalls. “The doctor in the lab at the time said I would have had one or two [scabies mites] on me, but that poor man had millions of these creepy things. That touched me real.”

Some time later, Sister Pearl ac­­cidentally pricked her finger on a used needle while on the ward. A doctor at A&E said that there was nothing that they could do except to take a blood test and wait to see whether she had contracted the virus. By the time she was allowed to leave and drive home, it was past
11 p.m., and her reser­voirs of calm had run dry as the gravity of the situation began to sink in.

Halfway across London, she sud­denly fell to pieces, she recalls. “I had to stop at Earl’s Court, and just screamed and screamed in the car to get it all out of my system. And then I headed home.” By the time she had got back to the other Sisters, her composure had been restored enough for her to tell them what had happened, and then go to bed. When the negative result came through, it felt almost like an anti-climax.


DESPITE the occasional wobble, Sister Pearl says that she has only fond memories of her years caring for some of the most reviled and least understood patients in the country. “In fact, it was one of the happiest times in my life. I was learn­ing so much from them.

”It was the need at the time, and I felt that the Lord had got me there, and I felt very close to him,” she recalls. “I felt that I was there as a representative of him, and to give all the patients all the love and care; to show them how Jesus would have acted had he been there on the ward.”

Her attitude was not echoed by all Christian voices at the time, the more extreme of which declared AIDS to be God’s punishment. But Sister Pearl found her inspira­tion in the example of Christ, who healed people with all kinds of sick­nesses during his ministry on earth.

Her faith soon found favour on the ward. Patients and their families would endlessly ask for Sister Pearl to sit at the bedside, es­­pe­­cially to­­wards the end of their lives.

”I didn’t think I was doing any­thing special,” she says. “I would just hold their hands, and pray and ask God to comfort them, to bless them, and take them into his care. They would appreciate that.”

Gradually, as the 1980s rolled into the 1990s, the tide began to turn. New and more effective treatments, which could actually hold HIV at bay, started to become available. Patients not only stopped dying: they started to get better. One by one, they were discharged for longer and longer periods, and some stopped returning at all. By 2002, Sister Pearl decided that it was time to hang up her uniform for good.

”I felt I left at a good time,” she says. “I was glad I saw it evolving, and that there was hope at the end of it all, after the suffering people had gone through.

”It took so long to get the drugs, to make that difference, but it was abso­lutely great. I felt my work was done. I had been ready to start, and then I was ready to leave at that time.”

She remains in close contact with two other nurses. But, even more im­­­­portant, she remembers the pa­­tients. “No, I’ll never forget them. Never, never, never. They are all part of my life.”

She attended many of the funerals of those who died in the late 1980s, and is still in touch with a patient who survived: “He’s still alive and well. I look forward to his calls.”


Sister Pearl Lenihan is one of 61 people to have contributed their re­­col­lections to Health Care Workers in HIV (www.healthcareworkersinhiv.org.uk), an oral-history project of the AIDS era organised by nurses who worked during that period. The arch­ive has now become part of the British Library.

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