* Photo by James Whitttaker. Tribute: Russ Ford shows off the Alumni Service Award from his alma matter, the North Caribbean University in Jamaica.
* Photo by James Whitttaker. Tribute: Russ Ford shows off the Alumni Service Award from his alma matter, the North Caribbean University in Jamaica.
When nurse Russ Ford first started working with Aids patients in Bermuda, he felt victims of the mysterious new disease were treated like lepers.

Even some doctors wore protective masks and it was not unusual for sufferers to be turfed out of their jobs or denied housing.

In the early 1980s, little was known about Aids and fear-mongering was rife.

Since the first case was recorded in 1982, Mr. Ford estimates about 400 people have died of the disease.

But between the first and the 400th victim, much progress has been made - largely thanks to Mr. Ford.

Commended

He co-founded Aids ­charity STAR and was instrumental in opening the Agape House hospice to care for the terminally ill.

His work with Aids ­patients was commended this week when he received the Alumni Service Award from his alma matter, the North Caribbean University in Mandeville, Jamaica.

Mr. Ford, who was invited to Jamaica last week to ­accept the award, still works with Aids patients today as a senior nurse at Westgate prison.

But his most significant achievements were at the frontline of the battle against the outbreak.

He changed attitudes to sufferers and educated Bermudians about the ­disease.

"It was equivalent to how people viewed leprosy," he said of attitudes to Aids in Bermuda in the '80s.

"People with HIV and Aids were viewed as outcasts. Even nurses and doctors would leave food outside their rooms and wear masks when they came to visit them."

Mr. Ford was asked to give advice to the Church about whether Aids sufferers should be allowed to drink from the chalice at Communion.

As an addiction nurse at St Brendan's Hospital (now MAWI), Mr. Ford encountered the first wave of ­victims - mostly drug users who had caught the disease by sharing needles. He saw the discrimination they faced daily and started the charity STAR with co-founder Christine Aitchison to offer support to ­victims and their families.

He also worked tirelessly giving lectures in the community about how the disease spread and helped educate future generations against the dangers of Aids - something he sees as his greatest legacy.

He said: "I have been able to help give persons with Aids and their families hope and show them there is more to life than living with Aids - teaching them to live with Aids as opposed to dying with it."

Mr. Ford's greatest tool in helping to change attitudes in the community was the victims themselves.

He remembers one ­sufferer - known as 'Bird' - who spoke out after his ­barber refused to cut his hair, saying it would ruin the reputation of his ­business.

Less than a month before he died, Bird gave an interview alongside Mr. Ford in the local press.

He told the papers that "as long as a man has life let him live, don't shut him out".

Heroin

Mr. Ford was particularly moved by Bird's case and even adopted that moving and brave slogan as STAR's motto.

The veteran nurse is still haunted by horror stories of other victims, including one whose nose rotted away due to a bacterial infection she contracted by trying to snort heroin.

But most of all, he ­remembers the humanity of the victims he has met and is proud he has been able to help ease their ­suffering and help them fight discrimination.

But he is concerned ­complacency is setting in in the battle against AIDS.

He said: "No one can say they don't have the information any more and for a while it was trending down.

"But there seems to have been a surge in new cases as a result of people not heeding the information.

"We still need to get the information out to the community."