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Lorraine Thiebaud on Safety Issues for Healthcare Workers in the Age of AIDS

AIDS emerged as a health crisis in the 1980ís and early 1990ís. While many Americans initially associated the disease with gay men, ignorance about AIDS contributed to its rapid spread, first to intravenous drug users and then to heterosexuals. The lack of information available to people at risk particularly affected health workers like Lorraine Theibaud, a registered nurse at San Francisco General Hospital. Theibaud and her colleagues, fearful about contracting or spreading the disease, were not given adequate information or training on how to protect themselves or their patients. When she discovered safety methods and technology that were not available at her hospital, Theibaud organized health workers to demand access to new safety techniques. Her campaign worked, winning workers new safety training and a permanent monitoring committee.

Listen to Audio:

THIEBAUD: At the time I started nursing school I thought nursing had a lot to do with nurturing people, being nice to them and rubbing their backs, I didn’t really have a very good conception of the types of technical skills that would be involved in the job. I think it took a long time for me to understand that AIDS was something that I could catch, not only that I could catch but that I could bring home to my husband.

Sometime in 1991 one of the nurses came to me, basically she said that she had, a few months before, accidentally stuck a medical student, that she had been devastated by the experience, that the medical student had been devastated by the experience. But that wasn’t the worst of the story. The worst of the story was that some one of her friends in the emergency room had showed her a device, a self-shielding IV starting kit, that could have prevented the accident that she caused. She was very enthusiastic, “This is great. I am going to get these into the area where I am working.” She called up central supply and she asked for the device. And was told that “No, I’m sorry, you can’t have it.” She was furious. She couldn’t understand how could they have a safety device in central supply and not give it to me?

Healthcare workers who stand up and say that I have relationships between sharp objects and people I don’t know. I need to be protected from AIDS, there are things out there that can help me. To some extent I feel like self-shielding needles and needle-less IV systems, those are my condoms. Those are the things that protect me and my relationship with patients, and protect my patients.

We filed a grievance, which was the first time in my memory that we ever filed a joint grievance between the three major unions at the hospital. I personally had presented the CEO of the hospital with petitions that were signed by over, I believe, it was 600 people. I have had many petitions signed in my life but I think that was one of the hardest ones. [It] wasn’t because people didn’t want to sign, I didn’t have a hard sell for a minute, everyone wanted to sign a petition. What was hard about it was that everyone wanted to stop and talk to me about their fears of contracting AIDS. They wanted to tell me the time they were stuck, the time they were afraid to go down and get a test. They wanted to tell me about the person they knew who had gotten stuck, who had a friend, about the device that fell on the floor, about the thing they almost found in the bed , I began to realize there was this huge amount of free-floating fear in the hospital that had to be directed somehow. What we won out of that grievance was not only the _______ throughout the hospital, we won the first major training of people to use safety devices in the hospital, and we won an on-going committee to evaluate all new technology that’s coming onto the market. And for us I think it was a tremendous victory. We won everything we went in there to get.

Source: Interviewed by Tami Gold and Robert Rosenberg for the film “Facing AIDS: Stories of Healthcare Workers,” A Bread and Roses Production
Courtesy of Labor at the Crossroads