Costa Mesa Hospital to Open First AIDS Ward in County : Health care: College Hospital officials and activists say the new unit will ensure care by staffers who want to be there.


Ten years after the AIDS epidemic began, College Hospital Costa Mesa on Monday will open Orange County’s first ward dedicated to treating patients infected with the deadly virus.

Hospitals around the county have long cared for AIDS-infected patients, dispersing those ill with pneumocystis pneumonia, Kaposi’s sarcoma and other AIDS-related diseases in regular medical-surgical wards.

But College Hospital officials and AIDS activists say the new ward will guarantee top medical and psychological care for AIDS-infected patients--and ensure that all the doctors, nurses and other staffers tending them really want to work with these patients.

Similar units have been open in Los Angeles and San Francisco hospitals for at least six years. But until now, “because of AIDS-phobia, no one hospital in Orange County has wanted to be known as ‘the AIDS hospital,’ ” said Pearl Jemison-Smith, chairwoman of a countywide AIDS coalition called ACTION. “It takes a lot of courage for College to do this.”


Dr. Richard T. Rada, president of College Hospital, also described the opening of his hospital’s Acute Care Center for the treatment of HIV disease as “a courageous and bold move.”

However, Rada said he had hoped to release information about the new unit gradually, “in a quiet, professional way,” starting Monday with a reception for AIDS activists and the doctors and nurses who treat patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. General public attention in advance of this “would be very bad,” Rada said. “I don’t think the public’s going to understand.”

At the 138-bed hospital Friday, workers were still putting the finishing touches on the seven-bed special unit, which also contains a patient kitchen and a TV lounge.

Registered nurse Dennis Amick, who serves as the unit’s clinical coordinator, said he hopes his staff will minister to the spiritual and psychological needs of those with AIDS-related diseases.


“AIDS patients want to be taken care of in a place where professionals want to care for them--and other patients are not afraid of them,” Amick noted.

The staff includes Dr. Charles Robertson, a Newport Beach physician who was one of the first Orange County doctors to start treating AIDS patients 10 years ago, and psychologist Angie Dickson.

Robertson noted that over the years AIDS patients have been treated in medical wards at nearly every Orange County hospital, and most often at Hoag Hospital, UCI Medical Center in Orange, Western Medical Center-Santa Ana and South Coast Medical Center in Laguna Beach.

According to the latest county figures through May 31, 1,903 county residents have contracted AIDS since the epidemic began, 1,213 have died and another 782 have AIDS-related infections.


The special unit will “concentrate the specialists and people who do HIV-related work in an environment where the staff wants to work on people with AIDS,” Robertson said. Still, he said, “I think all doctors who are going to see AIDS patients at College will also continue to see them at other hospitals” in Orange County.

Local hospitals have regularly offered quality care to AIDS patients, said Richard Sherry, director of nursing for the AIDS Services Foundation of Costa Mesa. Still, a special AIDS unit was warranted, he said.

“Sometimes AIDS patients feel isolated--that they cannot easily talk to the person in the other bed or the person walking by their door, either because of real or perceived stigma” from the disease, Sherry said.

Opening a special ward for those with HIV-infection was no different than designating a section of a hospital for heart patients or another section for cancer patients, some AIDS activists said.


But until now, there had been no AIDS unit in Orange County, one leader argued, “because there’s so much homophobia and nobody wants to be identified with AIDS. They think, ‘We won’t get all these rich, pregnant women delivering in our hospital.’ ”

Told of the remark, one Hoag official countered that her hospital had never considered starting a special AIDS unit because those patients are placed on wards by diagnosis--those with pneumonia, for instance, go to the pulmonary unit.

Also, said Hoag spokeswoman Gail Love, it could be argued that with a special unit for AIDS patients “you are isolating them--putting them off away from everyone else.”