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Harry visits HIV hospital where mother Diana kissed Aids patient

Published 14/12/2015

Prince Harry will visit an HIV hospital in London that was supported by his mother Diana, Princess of Wales
Prince Harry will visit an HIV hospital in London that was supported by his mother Diana, Princess of Wales

Prince Harry has followed in the footsteps of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, by touring an HIV hospital.

The 31-year-old chatted to staff and patients from Mildmay Hospital, which has been offering dedicated treatment to those living with the devastating illness for more than 25 years.

Harry was told stories of his mother making private late-night visits to Mildmay in east London when it was an HIV hospice, and he highlighted how she helped to break down the stigma surrounding the illness by kissing an Aids patient there.

Beneath a picture of Diana signing a photograph of herself during a 1991 visit to Mildmay, Harry put his signature in a visitors' book.

Kerry Reeves-Kneip, Mildmay's fundraising director, told the Prince that Diana made 17 visits to the centre in Shoreditch - three publicly - and that staff faced discrimination from some neighbouring shops which refused to serve them.

She added: "She came at such an important time - around this area local barbers wouldn't cut staff's hair. She really did break down the stigma."

In a lighter moment, she told a story about one of Diana's visits.

Speaking about Harry and his brother William, she said: "There was a telephone call from a school - one of you had clambered on to a school roof."

Harry joked: "It was probably me", and, when told his mother "found it amusing", replied: "Phew".

He acknowledged her efforts to change public opinion about HIV and Aids when he said: "It was here she kissed one of the patients - that was a huge deal."

Harry's visit marked the opening of the new £6 million Mildmay Hospital, which admitted its first patients in September, and the charity's 150th anniversary.

Mildmay began as a mission hospital in the mid-19th century, providing care during a cholera outbreak in London, and over the decades became part of the NHS after the war before being closed down in 1982.

In 1988 it reopened as the first dedicated hospice for people dying of Aids-related illnesses and has remained at the forefront of specialist HIV care since that time.

Speaking about Diana, Ms Reeves-Kneip told Harry during their tour: "She used to arrive from a function late at night."

Harry replied: "Sneak out without anybody knowing - now not a chance with Twitter."

Ms Reeves-Kneip said: "She used to take tea and cakes with the staff, and gossip."

She went on: "She gave a lot of comfort and love to the people here. She was incredible - you must hear these stories all the time."

Thanks to advances in antiretroviral drugs, Mildmay's focus has moved from end-of-life care to rehabilitation, particularly for people with an HIV-associated brain condition.

When the virus enters the brain it can causes symptoms similar to severe dementia but it is treatable and the hospital sees 80% of its patients return home to independent living with an improved quality of life.

More than 100,000 people in the UK are living with HIV but around 17% have not been diagnosed and diagnosing the condition late can lead to it affecting the brain.

The 26-bed hospital treats patients who are seriously ill and provides a range of services from occupational therapists to nutrition and physiotherapy to help them return to independent living.

Harry, whose Sentebale charity works with HIV orphans in Lesotho, met patients undergoing exercise and rehab in a small gym and also, privately, more seriously ill patients.

But the stigma surrounding HIV remains, with some patients only disclosing their condition to a small number of their family and friends.

Sharon Smith, 60, Mildmay's office manager, is one of the few remaining staff who met Diana.

She described how they chatted when the Princess attended a pre-school group for children with HIV or those whose parents had the condition.

The 60-year-old said: "She got involved with the children to the point of learning to juggle. She was gorgeous, she was a very charming lady, very knowledgeable about Mildmay, she knew what was going on."

Speaking about meeting Harry, Ms Smith said: "I never thought I would, it's very nice. I just hope he can possibly carry on the work she started."

Ms Reeves-Kneip said: "One of the patients got on her knees when she saw him and he got on his knees as well and they were holding hands.

"He also met one of our sickest patients, and he found it quite moving to see just how ill people with HIV can be, although the patient was still very excited to meet him.

"One of the people he met is a 26-year-old woman who met Princess Diana at Great Ormond Street Hospital when she was two years old and HIV positive.

"She told the Prince she sat on his mother's lap and remembered how it was and how she cuddled into her and he said, 'I remember that too'."

The hospital did not allow any of the patients to be photographed because most are too ill to give consent.

"A lot of people think HIV has either gone away or that people just need to take some tablets," said Camilla Hawkins, lead occupational therapist.

"The treatment now is fantastic, but there are also psychological and cognitive aspects that people don't know about, and it's important that people know how much care is still needed."

Before leaving, the Prince was asked to cut a 150th anniversary cake, and looked a little unsure how to tackle it.

"I don't cut cakes much," he joked. "We normally plant trees. This is something new."

As he left he was given a picture of his mother with Martin, the HIV patient she kissed in 1989, who died a week after her visit.

He was told that not only had Diana given Martin a boost in his final days, but it reunited him with his parents, who had disowned him but got back in touch and made one final visit to him before he died.

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