Prince Harry Follows in Princess Diana's Footsteps at HIV Hospital as Patient Recalls, 'Your Mother's Lap Was So Comfortable'
"You almost felt you know him, because he was so kind to everyone," says hospital staffer Kerry Reeves-Kneip
Prince Harry recalled the comfort of his mother’s knee during an emotional visit Monday to a hospital for patients battling HIV.
Harry met a woman who, as a 2-year-old toddler, had bonded with Princess Diana 24 years ago.
The HIV-positive woman told Harry she had sat on the princess’s lap more than two decades. “Your mother’s lap was so comfortable and I cuddled into her,” she told him. Harry replied, “I remember that too.”
The “lovely moment,” was shared by Kerry Reeves-Kneip, director of fundraising and communications at Mildmay Mission Hospital in east London where Harry toured Monday.
“He held hands with the mother and daughter,” Reeves-Kneip tells PEOPLE. “You almost felt you knew him because he was so kind to everyone.”
Like his mother, the 31-year-old royal showed an “absolutely amazing” touch with patents and staff alike, says Reeves-Kneip. He crouched to the floor with one man and held his hand. When another patient got down on her knees when she saw him, “He went down on his knees too,” says Reeves-Kneip.
“He was absolutely amazing, and I am shocked at home relaxed he is. He made everyone feel not nervous. He really wanted to hear the patients’ stories and their journey.”
And he marveled that his late mother Diana, who died in 1997, had managed to come so often unseen. She visited the hospital 17 times – but only three times in an official capacity.
It was at Mildmay in 1989 that Diana famously shook hands with an AIDS patient and kissed him on the cheek – a gesture that went a long way toward tackling the ferocious stigma at the time.
Harry asked. “How on earth did she get away with sneaking in and out and said, ‘If only I could do that!’ ” Reeves-Kneip recalled.
“He said it was very important for him to come here. This was a very important place to her and she made a number of visits here.”
Harry also heard of a tale of him as a mischievous schoolboy alongside brother Prince William during one of Diana’s visits to the hospital. Reeves-Kneip revealed that on one of her many tours, “There was a phone call from the school saying one of you had climbed onto the roof.”
“That was probably me,” Harry replied. When he was told his mother was “found it amusing,” he said, “Phew, that was lucky.”
In the U.K. there are more than 103.000 people living with HIV and an estimated 17 percent are unaware of their condition. Late-diagnosis levels remain high, and people with a late HIV diagnosis are much more likely to develop severe and complex HIV-associated health conditions, including brain impairment.
Hospital staffers praised how Diana had tackled the prejudices about HIV and AIDS head-on.
“Before she came here, the local barbers wouldn t cut the hair of people who worked here, the banks wouldn t handle our money, dentists wouldn t treat the staff and bricks were being thrown through our windows all the time,” recalls Reeves-Kneip.
“But after the picture of her shaking hands with our patient and kissing him on the cheek went global, things changed.”
The hospital is celebrating its 150th anniversary, and Harry was asked to cut a commemorative cake. “I don t cut cakes much,” he joked. “We normally plant trees. This is something new.”
Sharon Smith, the hospital s office manager, has worked there for 23 years and told Harry she met his mother when she visited.
“I remember her coming on one of her private visits. She was gorgeous and so charming. She used to get involved with the children we treated to the extent that she tried to learn to juggle,” she told reporters.
“I never thought I would meet her son, but it s been very nice and I just hope he might continue the work that she started.”
Harry hopes to continue the fight against AIDS and build on the work he has done on behalf of those affected by the disease in Africa, especially in Lesotho.
On Monday, the royal saw how the hospital’s work has changed significantly in the last two decades. Thanks to advances in medication, like anti-retroviral drugs, the hospital’s focus has moved from end-of-life care to rehabilitation for AIDS and HIV patients.
“Harry is concerned that almost 30 years on, the stigma around HIV persists and is so damaging for those living with HIV,” a spokesman for Kensington Palace said in a statement.
“His charity, Sentebale, is working to break down the barriers of understanding and knowledge of HIV/AIDS in Lesotho in southern Africa – and encouraging people to access the support they require.
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“Having developed relationships with a number of international HIV charities, [he] is keen to lend his voice to help tackle the stigma in a wider context outside of Lesotho,” the statement added.
As he arrived in east London, Harry met a group of schoolchildren who lined the walkway to the hospital.
“He asked us what lessons we were missing,” Ihsan Ahmed, 10, tells PEOPLE. “We said maths and he said ‘Maths? Boring! Oh I didn’t say that!’ ”