An estimated 96,000 people are living with HIV in the UK today. 42 per cent of them live in London, with a high concentration in the southeast boroughs.
The treatment of HIV has improved vastly over the last few years, with national awareness days – one coming up on April 10 – bringing attention to the prevention and treatment of the disease.
One of the leading charities working tirelessly to improve the lives of people with HIV/AIDS, is the Mildmay Hospital in Shoreditch. Here, researchers specialise in studying what happens when HIV enters the brain, and a new state-of-the-art hospital will be opened on a historical site in Tower Hamlets this summer.
Mildmay is the first HIV rehabilitation hospital in Europe to specialise in HIV Associated Neurocognitive Disorder (HAND). This is a condition which occurs when HIV enters the brain and impacts the nerve cells causing extensive brain-related damage.
The new facility is being built on the sight of the original Mildmay hospital, where benevolent Victorians once worked tirelessly in the fight against cholera. Mildmay, one of the UK’s leading HIV/AIDS charities, who has been operating in Tower Hamlets since 1866, is behind the project.
Mildmay raised £10 million to built the new facilities on Hackney Road, after nearly a decade of planning. Complete with 26-bed hospital expanded Day Service facilities and specially trained staff, it carries on the proud tradition of the Mildmay’s hundred-year-old history.
Dr Ross White, CEO at the hospital, attributes the rich history of the charity and their continuous commitment to transforming lives, as the most engaging aspect of working at Mildmay. “The charity is still closely linked to its Victorian foundation, its original roots, to step into areas where no other people were working,” he says.
“[We] stepped into the HIV field at a time when people were very frightened about HIV – that boldness to reach out to people who are very much in need is still our aim today.”
Referring to the new hospital, he says: “It will bring a freshness to Mildmay, and we will be the focus of a new place in London. It will be the first mission hospital in 100 years, there aren’t any others in the UK. It will be the newest hospital in London and will also increase capacity, provide opportunities for us to branch into other things; possibly dementia. Some of our patients suffer from a specific type of dementia which is reversible.”
Many patients who arrive at Mildmay have lost their ability to walk, and within seven to eight weeks, 82% of patients are walking out – returning home to normal life.
The fundraising team has already raised £700,000 towards the cost of the new build, and is now working to raise a further £300,000 needed for completion and equipment. And there is a demand for new medical facilities of this kind in London, as the number of people that access specialist HIV/AIDS care has doubled over the last decade.
A former patient, known as Dennis*, said of the hospital: “I was always strong and fit until HIV knocked me off my feet, and robbed me of my mental capacity. Mildmay has been my bridge back to my own life. I can’t thank them enough.”
The work that goes on at Mildmay includes art and gardening workshops in the local community. A key figure within the hospital is Mahendra Mali, a Senior Physiotherapist, also known to patients as the ‘magic man’. He said: “At Mildmay our combined therapies work with individual needs providing holistic treatment and support. HIV patients are living longer with far more complex problems. Mildmay is an excellent healthcare service, which supports the NHS. The new hospital is a great milestone.”
The charity and new hospital remain today in the exact location of its founding in 1892. Catherine Pennefather built the hospital in memory of her husband, Reverend William, who was responsible for setting up emergency services to care for the sick during the cholera outbreak in east London in 1866.
Today, Mildmay supports people from around the country, and a small number from overseas. “We see a mixture of people, the fact that Shoreditch is this vibrant melting pot of a variety of things reminds me that HIV is not confined to one sector of society. It is not the “gay plague” as it was known the in the ’80s. It can affect anyone,” says White.
In 198,8 Mildmay re-opened as Europe’s first hospice caring for people with HIV/AIDS after a brief closure under NHS cut-backs. Princess Diana made visits both officially and unofficially, and famously shook hands with a Mildmay patient at the height of the epidemic.
Kerry Reeves-Kneip, Director of Fundraising and Communications, says of Diana: “On one occasion she took the hand of an AIDS patient and allowed herself to be photographed; this was the first time that the stigma around HIV started breaking down. Diana made 17 unofficial visits to our Shoreditch hospital, arriving at 11pm and staying until the early hours. She would sit with dying patients and hold their hands.”
As medication developed, the demand for the charity adapted from end-of-life care to specialised rehabilitation. Juley Ayers, Communications Manager at Mildmay, says: “We don’t need a hospice anymore, we now transform people’s lives, it’s about living with HIV not dying from HIV/AIDS.”
Upon the hospital completion, the charity offices and medical staff will be moving into the new building, which will still have original historical artefacts such as an outside ceramic clock face, original staircases, and a rose bush planted by Princess Diana.
Reeves-Kneip says that working in the building alongside the hospital is central to her work as a fundraiser: “It is our motivation and strength to see the benefit of our work, and for major donors and stakeholders to have the opportunity to both see our work and be inspired to be a part of it.”
Over the past three years, the fundraising team have shifted from £400,000 per year to £700,000 and they don’t plan to stop there. “Mildmay has always re-invented itself and moved with the times,” Reeves-Kneip adds, “it is a challenging charity to work for, because HIV has such stigma. It is not an attractive cause as other charities but the impact and work is much more dramatic.”
Since its founding, the charity has overcome many changes, but has persevered and remains to be caring in the place where it all began. With the opening of the new hospital begins a new era, relying firmly on the values and experience that has come to define Mildmay Hospital.