Fairfield Hospital

 

Volunteer nursing training at Fairfield Hospital

Volunteer nursing training at Fairfield Hospital in the mid 1980s. VAC Annual Report 1986

 

Originally known as Queen’s Memorial Infectious Diseases Hospital and opened in 1904, Fairfield Hospital became an important symbol of the AIDS epidemic in Victoria. Perched high on the banks of the Yarra River, it developed an international reputation for the research and treatment of infectious diseases, treating patients with typhoid, diphtheria, cholera, smallpox, poliomyelitis and scarlet fever. 1

With the emergence of the HIV virus in the early 1980s, Fairfield Hospital and its virology laboratory became one of the primary centres for patient care, diagnostic services, public health reference and research into AIDS in Australia. The first patient with AIDS was admitted to Fairfield Hospital in April 1984 and an AIDS outpatients’ clinic opened later that year.

The VAC/GMHC developed a close relationship with Fairfield Hospital. The first training program for volunteers to care for people with HIV at home was provided by staff at Fairfield Hospital in 1986. ‘From the very beginning they were totally committed to working with the AIDS Council because they realised that this was unprecedented and everyone needed to work together on it’, says Bill O’Loughlin, who was the first person appointed to liaise between the VAC/GMHC and Fairfield Hospital.2 O’Loughlin attended weekly ward meetings to discuss the treatment and care of patients who were part of the VAC/GMHC’s volunteer care program:

I would imagine that that would be impossible to have that happen in a larger, more conventional hospital where someone from the outside would come in on their systems and be privy to the discussions that were happening; but it shows the respect that the hospital had for the organisation and what we were doing.3

Fairfield was a unique and special hospital, set amongst beautiful gardens where peacocks wandered freely. While some Victorian hospitals refused treatment to people with HIV/AIDS, Fairfield provided a caring, compassionate, gay-friendly environment that included flexible visiting hours, the opportunity for partners to sleep over, gay magazines in the foyer, and a truly comfortable space for people with AIDS.

… people had their own room with a balcony that they could sit outside and smoke. Given the horror of what was happening for people there it was one of the most beautiful settings you could imagine to have to deal with that.4

This unique culture stemmed from a commitment to community engagement and a patient-focussed healthcare delivery model.5 The attitude of staff also played an important role. ‘It wasn’t one of those large, impersonal institutions, it was a small hospital, there were a very small number of doctors and nurses, comparatively, and it had a unique personality and character.’6 Staff, like nurses Val Seeger and Barb Pollett and doctors Anne Mijch and Ron Lucas, helped create a welcoming environment and a ‘sanctuary’ for patients, together with their partners, families, friends and carers.

 

Ron Watkins from the Laird Hotel, Head Nurse Val Seeger, Dr Ron Lucas and Phil Carswell at Fairfield Hospital in 1985.

Ron Watkins from the Laird Hotel, Head Nurse Val Seeger, Dr Ron Lucas and Phil Carswell at Fairfield Hospital in 1985.

 

There were peacocks wandering around the gardens, it was a beautiful isolated location, people felt safe and secure … People loved Fairfield. There were times when they went out there and held their loved ones as they died.7

One former patient recalls that it was the combination of the peaceful setting and compassionate staff that made Fairfield a special place:

The grounds were beautiful, there were peacocks wandering around the grounds, it was right by the river, you could overlook the Fairfield boat sheds; it was just very picturesque. The care was exceptional, the nurses were just so, so good, absolutely brilliant. And they understood, they were nursing you because they had a real understanding about HIV issues or AIDS.8

Phil Carswell remembers ‘We had a whole ward, Ward 4, that was full of our boys’, and notes the humour of the hospital’s original name, and the wording on the portal over the main gate of the hospital: ‘it was named the Queen’s Memorial Infectious Diseases Hospital after Queen Victoria, but it took on a different meaning when it was full of gay men’.9

 

The Day Care Centre at Fairfield Hospital in 1993. Photograph by Mathias Heng. State Library of Victoria, H95.190/5

The Day Care Centre at Fairfield Hospital in 1993. Photograph by Mathias Heng. State Library of Victoria, H95.190/5

 

Fairfield Hospital continued to offer care and treatment for patients with HIV and AIDS into the 1990s. In 1991, large public protests were organised against the possible closure of the hospital. At this time Fairfield Hospital cared for 90 per cent of people with HIV/AIDS in hospital care in Victoria.10 The VAC/GMHC, together with PLWHA, actively opposed any reduction in the services offered by Fairfield and enacted a campaign to save Fairfield Hospital, staging public meetings, fronting demonstrations and encouraging people to send letters to the state government.

The campaign succeeded in delaying the closure, but only temporarily. Despite the view of the HIV community that Fairfield Hospital should remain on-site as a world-renowned centre of excellence, by 1996 the majority of the hospital’s HIV services had been relocated to The Alfred and Royal Melbourne Hospitals and Fairfield Hospital ceased operations.

 

Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

 

When it closed in 1996, Fairfield Hospital was the last specific infectious diseases hospital in Australia. It was recognised worldwide as a centre of excellence in the treatment and care of infectious diseases including HIV/AIDS. Hundreds of VAC/GMHC volunteers trained there and did their ‘clinical placement’ on the wards at Fairfield.11 It was a sanctuary, a place of respite and a final resting place for a significant number of people with HIV/AIDS. Though its doors are closed, the memory of Fairfield Hospital remains alive in the hearts of many former patients, volunteers and staff of the VAC/GMHC.

 

Poster for a Save Fairfield Hospital Rally in 1991. Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

Poster for a Save Fairfield Hospital Rally in 1991. Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives

 


References