The taboo around sexual health can often be amusing. Unspecific "doctors" appointments are booked, hushed whispers are said to friends, and great lengths are taken to hide any evidence from both mothers and lovers.
However the consequence of such a taboo is anything but amusing. This week's report on Radio 1's Newsbeat stated that almost half of HIV diagnoses happen late, which reduces the life expectancy of the person, with one in five HIV positive people remaining undiagnosed forever. For a medically advanced and NHS enabled country, that's a pretty alarming stat.
Well, the other day an incident happened that quashed my personal taboo all together, and made me speak up about my own sexual health. I accidentally got locked inside an STI clinic with a health practitioner who was giving my willy the once over, and had to climb out of the window, down a ladder and into the arms of a Hackney security officer in order to get out.
We realised we were locked in when I was asked to give a urine sample and, making my way to the toilet, couldn't open the door. Initial concern rose to a mild panic when Clarence, the nurse, came to investigate the other knob in the room, and confirmed that the lock was indeed jammed.
Her gut reaction was to make a loud noise and bang at the door, my gut reaction was to hide in the corner and do up my trousers. Her banging led to other nurses appearing in the corridor, and in time a small gaggle of well meaning but wholly unsuccessful staff members tried, in turn, to unlock the door.
In their booming West African voices, the ladies started to communicate through the thick, fire proofed door to establish the facts, before making a plan:
Nurse 1: CLARENCE. IS YOUR PATIENT IN THEIR WITH YOU?
Nurse 2: HAVE YOU FINISHED YOUR INVESTIGATION WITH HIM?
Nurse 3: IS HE FULLY CLOTHED NOW?
Nurse 2: CAN HE TRY AND UNLOCK THE DOOR TOO?
Clarence: HE HAS.
Nurse 1: OH. (Pause) OK.
Sister Clarence could not have written this better herself.
The temperature was definitely rising, and the chance of me slipping out unnoticed was fast slipping away. Through the glass in the door I could see the other people in the drop-in queue taking in the commotion, seething at the fact that me and my jammed lock was making them spend more time than absolutely necessary in the awkward, side glancing holding pen of infection that is an STI clinic waiting room.
Next thing, the phone goes. It's Nurse 1. Unable to hear what she was asking, I had to piece together the puzzle using only Clarence's answers:
YES HE IS OK.
YES, HE IS QUITE YOUNG.
Pause. She looks at me.
YES, HE LOOKS STRONG.
Pause. She looks at her feet then above her head.
TALLER THAN ME.
Pause. She looks to her right.
YES, WE HAVE A WINDOW.
She hangs up, stands up, and looks out of the window.
JAMES, THEY ARE WANTING YOU TO CLIMB OUT OF THE WINDOW.
This time I pause.
There's not much you can do when you're trapped in an STI clinic with a well meaning health practitioner who's just inspected your privates other than trust her implicitly with your every move. And so, on her cue, a ladder appeared, the window was opened and out I climbed.
The rest of the exit passed without much incident. She handed me my bag, I handed it on down to the security guards, and next thing I knew I was back on dry land. With my head held high I walked back through the waiting room, feeling the burn of eye balls as I went, and continued with my urine sample before cycling in to work chuckling at the morning's antics.
Chuckles aside, this led me to realise one thing: it shouldn't take an incident like this to talk about sexual health. As I've been recounting the story to my friends, I've realised that a lot of people either don't get themselves checked up, or don't talk about it when they do.
For the record, it turned out I had a standard urine infection that cleared up with a quick dose of antibiotics, but in the process I had an examination for HIV, Hepatitis B and a whole host of other possible infections. And why bloody not?
Newsbeat also reported that it's not just us patient's who find talking about sexual health awkward. A HIV testing nurse stated that even doctors find it difficult to offer HIV tests because of the stigma attached to it. In short, we've all just got to get over this. In a society where access to medication and medical staff is freely available, it is not only our right to get ourselves checked out, but our duty.
Hopefully you won't have such a Sister Act style anecdote at the end of it, but you will knowledge about your status and the subsequent piece of mind. And that in itself is worth talking about.
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