My Mom Worked as a Nurse During the 1980s AIDS Crisis — Here's What She Told Me About It

"People would come in, they’d be diagnosed with a viral illness, then they’d be discharged. They’d come back in a month or two to die."
Publish date:
December 12, 2016
interview, aids, hiv, 1980s, nurses

Short, blonde and cute as button: My mother may look sweet, but she’s got a mouth like a sailor and was probably a truck driver in another life.

On one hand, Ingrid Wright AlTai is blunt, tough and has a resting bitch face that can rival Kanye’s. On the other, she’s empathetic, hilarious and unwaveringly open-minded. I’ve inherited a few fine qualities from this woman, but there are traits of hers that I have no choice but to admire from a distance. Like a bagel, my mother is a beautiful, conflicting blend of both hard and soft.

Recently, I found out my mom’s very first job in the opportunity-rich USA of the '80s was working as a staff nurse in an AIDS unit in Newark, New Jersey.

Cue jaw drop.

Hailing from the working-class valleys of South Wales, I’ve never doubted for a second my mother’s ability to graft, but even this came as a surprise.

I sat down with my mother dearest to learn more about her experience working at the very epicentre of the epidemic. This is what she had to say.

GA: What got you into nursing?

IWA: I was working in psychiatry and I really liked it. During my summer holidays, I was working as a student and I really loved psychiatric nursing and then I decided to go into general nursing, because I like people and I enjoyed my job.

Why did you and dad decide to move to the States?

Dad wanted to go because of the job situation for foreign doctors in Britain at the time. Margaret Thatcher was in office and wasn’t particularly friendly towards immigrant doctors. Your father also felt that he’d have better job prospects by moving to the US. I didn’t particularly want to go, but we both felt there was more opportunity out there.

So you think the medical field in Britain was xenophobic in the '80s?

Yes, I believe so. A lot of the foreign students and doctors were used to basically stop the gaps in the wall. Even if they were good, there were forces working against them that would prevent those students from becoming very successful. Progression would be very hard for them. Many of the people your father worked with would ask him questions like, “Oh, when are you going back to the Middle East?” So, we decided to go to the United States.

When you moved to the States, what was the first city you worked in?

Newark, NJ. I was in the Iron Bound section of Newark, a predominantly Portuguese and Spanish neighbourhood. The reason it was called the “Iron Bound” section was because it was surrounded by railroad tracks on all sides. At the time, I was working at a hospital called St. James Hospital in Newark.

What was that area like?

Major culture shock. There were armed guards in the hospital, something I never witnessed before. In fact, one day, when I was sending in my paper work for the board exams, your father tried to enter the hospital to come and see me and he was stopped at the front desk by an armed guard. He told them, “I’m here to see my wife.” Which they replied with, “We don’t care, you might come steal the babies.” It was a poor, developing neighbourhood populated mainly by migrants when we moved there in 1986.

Working at this hospital in 1986, when were you first introduced to the AIDS epidemic?

Straight away. People would come in, they’d be diagnosed with a viral illness, then they’d be discharged. They’d come back in a month or two and they would come back to die.

Did people know that it was AIDs at the time?

Yeah, they did know and they were calling it AIDS. Patients came from all walks of life; there were heterosexuals, homosexuals, male, female, rich and poor — everybody.

From any materials I’ve seen, AIDS was depicted as the gay plague. That was completely off the mark?

Yes. Like I said, all walks of life. I remember working with one young gay man who was from a middle class Italian family, but a lot of the other patients were heterosexual.

I was there from March to August of 1986 — I had a memory of them coming in, having some kind of viral illness and then they’d come back to die. I remember several patients like that. There were some pretty heavy duty drugs at the time with some horrible side effects. Those patients diagnosed earlier on in the epidemic were treated like guinea pigs.

I remember in 1981, I was reading about this epidemic in Cosmopolitan or another magazine to that affect and they framed it as the gay population’s scourge in places like San Francisco and New York. Then, 4-5 years later I found myself in an area very close to New York, in a poor area, with all these people coming from all sorts of backgrounds.

What kind of protective gear did they have you wear?

We’d wear masks, gowns and gloves. The gloves were latex and the the masks and gowns were made of non-woven fabric - like a paper material. We used to double glove and we had to change the face masks pretty regularly. I’m pretty sure, in 1986, they were still unaware of how AIDs was transmitted. They didn’t want to take any chances.

Was there any scientific backing to say this gear would protect you against the virus?

Not that I was aware of!

What would happen when you told someone they tested positive?

Actually, research has proven that when you tell someone they had the AIDS virus, their T cell count would drop. Their immunity would hit the skids. It’s just a total shock to their system. Obviously, AIDS is tied to immunity and T cells, so these people were immediately disadvantaged and the drugs at the time, I guess they weren’t that effective or they weren’t even using them, so they would die very quickly. Now, people can be HIV positive or have full-blown AIDS and they’re on a regime of drugs and they can live for a very long time. But back then, it was almost an immediate death sentence.

I know you mentioned some of the drugs they were experimenting with at the time . Could you list those out for me?

I can’t recall what we were using, but the drugs we were giving them, but it was pre-AZT.

When it came to the side-effects of taking these drugs, what are we talking?

Bleeding, sores all over their bodies, vomiting, diarrhea, emaciation. They’d become skeletal.

From my very limited knowledge of how the body works, it sounds like part of the reason these patients were dying was due to the prescription drugs. Is that correct?

Yes and no. It was from the virus, but I don’t really know. The drugs were so heavy duty, they might have been dying from them too.

From a humanitarian perspective, do you think the patients were treated fairly? Did you witness any mistreatment of patients?

No, absolutely not. Nobody showed them any ill will. Everyone was scared and felt sympathy for the patients because they were just so sick.

But you and the other nurses were dealing with some heavy duty stuff. You must have felt a whole range of emotions.

At the end of the day, we were there to do a job. That’s just how it is in nursing. You put on your scrubs and hit the ground running.

In 2016, do you think the healthcare industry is doing enough about AIDS?

They’ve done quite a good job in regards to health education and AIDS prevention. Use of condoms, no reusing needles (the clean needle program). All in all, I think they’ve done a reasonable job, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement.


As of 2015, there are an estimated 34 million people around the globe who are living with the virus and around 6,000 people are diagnosed with HIV each year in the UK alone. Donate, hold a bake sale, wear a red ribbon: solidarity comes in all shapes and sizes!