Sexually transmitted

Our writer musters up the nerve to get his first STI test

“STI Clinic – 5th Floor”

I’ve been to the Sheldon M. Chumir Health Centre before but I’ve never noticed that sign. As the elevator rises I chastise my heart for pounding. Why am I nervous? It’s just an STI test.

STI stands for Sexually Transmitted Infections. Back in the day we called them Sexually Transmitted Diseases but as Dr. Judy MacDonald Medical Officer of Health for Alberta Health Services points out during an interview prior to my visit “Disease means that you have symptoms. You can have an infection with no symptoms at all so STI is actually a broader category than STD.” Today I’ll be tested for a gamut of possible infections including chlamydia gonorrhea syphilis and HIV.

At the first desk I fill out a form that includes my name and contact information. “It’s a confidential clinic” says MacDonald. “You’ll be assigned a unique number that doesn’t go anywhere else but if the test results come back positive we need to know how to get in touch with you.”

Having completed the form I’m directed to the orange waiting room. I detour to the washroom then head over. The first thing I see is a sign on the bulletin board. “Men: Must hold urine for two hours before testing.” Oops.

There are five of us a mix of men and women spread across the waiting room. Periodically a nurse appears and calls a first name and someone disappears behind the door.

Next to me there’s a table of worn magazines and confusingly a copy of The Bone Bed by Patricia Cornwell. Who wants to read a forensic thriller while waiting for an STI test? More worryingly if they’re leaving novels in the waiting room how long is this wait going to be?

Turns out about 20 minutes. An amicable nurse opens the door and calls my name. I follow him into an examination room.

The first batch of questions is pretty standard: allergies known conditions current medication. Then the focus shifts “down there”: have I had surgery on my genitals? Am I showing any STI symptoms?

Next up: sexual history.

“When was your last sexual encounter?” With a woman about eight months ago.

“Was it a relationship a one-night thing?”

“Was this someone you know well?”

“Did you engage in anal or oral sex?”

I squirm in my chair. He’s matter-of-fact about the whole thing but for me the answers involve memories of a fuzzy exhilarating awkward one-nighter.

After a handful more questions it’s time for the blood test.

The nurse explains there’s a window of about a month (depending on the infection) before the tests are considered accurate. “Some people tell me they had five partners last week and they’re worried about Tuesday. We can’t isolate Tuesday. Okay take off your pants!”

My pants come down. He deftly feels my testicles lifts my penis examines the glans. “No growths no sores just urine” he concludes which is reassuring. As I pull up my pants I realize it’s even more reassuring that if I did have growths or sores or other this man wouldn’t be fazed.

“When’s the last time you peed?” he asks.

“Just now” I admit “before I came into the waiting room.”

“We prefer if you don’t urinate for two hours before the exam. Oh well.” He hands me a sealed cup. “Give it a shot. If nothing comes out you can come back later to try again or we can do a swab.”

“The swab isn’t required?” I ask surprised.

“Ah the dreaded swab” he smiles. “It stings a little. The swab needs to go about this deep” he indicates on a handy penis diagram a point partway up the urethra “to pick up the appropriate skin cells but the cells are also shed when you urinate.”

Perhaps motivated by the threat of a swab I manage to fill the cup. And then… I’m done! The nurse gives me an identification number and tells me to call in a week for results. I check the clock as I exit the orange waiting room; the whole exam took less than 10 minutes. As the elevator hums to life an electronic voice says “Going down.” I muffle an immature chuckle.

Leaving the Health Centre I wonder again why was I nervous? I was here for an article with no reason to believe I would have an infection but there’s no telling what brought those other people to the waiting room: worrying symptoms a positive result in a sexual partner a sexual assault. For some of us the results will be positive. For some it will mean a quick treatment and some awkward phone calls. For some it will be life-altering.

“Anybody who is sexually active should be getting tested” says MacDonald “especially if they’re engaging in sexual activity with multiple partners and especially with partners that they don’t know.”

Every month Mark Hopkins will step outside of his comfort zone and write about the experience. Do you have an adventure to suggest? E-mail him at mark@swallowabicycle.com .