Enjoy your urethral swab! one of my colleagues called as I left the office for my doctor’s appointment. Hope you don’t have herpes! another cried.
Ever since everyone learnt I was having an STD test they’d taken great pleasure in taunting me about it. But after years of having regular check-ups I wasn’t afraid in the slightest.
It was nearly 12 months since my last test and I was pretty sure I didn’t have any STDs. But I’ve been told gay men who have more than one sexual partner in a 12-month period should get checked out at least once a year. Not all infections produce obvious symptoms, after all.
The reason I’m writing about it is hopefully to demystify the process for my friends and everyone else who finds the idea of getting tested too mortifying to even contemplate.
The Sydney Sexual Health Centre (SSHC) at Sydney Hospital on Macquarie Street was almost like my second home a few years back during the slutty phase of my early 20s. The service is completely confidential and free, with no Medicare card required. There are male and female doctors, nurses and counsellors to choose from and gay men’s health is an area they specialise in -“ around 35 percent of their patients are gay guys.
I remember my first visit was nerve-racking. What would happen if I got a stiffy when they touched my wang? How big would the anal swab be? Would they be horrified by the ins and outs of my torrid gay sex life? And the worst scenario -“ what if I actually had an STD?
I figured it was best to know if I did have an STD so I could deal with it before it started affecting my health. And to my surprise and relief the whole process was totally painless and not at all unpleasant. Discussing the most private details of my sexual practices with a complete stranger was incredibly liberating. The doctor was totally nonjudgmental and had heard stories a million times worse than anything I had to say. The part where I got my pants off was so unsexy there was no chance of me getting hard. In fact quite the opposite happened -“ serious shrinkage -“ which was embarrassing in itself. And the anal and urethral swabs were fine -“ I could barely feel a thing.
That was around five years ago. On this visit I was seen to by the lovely Dr Marcus Chen, who has worked at the SSHC for four years. Dr Marcus started asking me the standard questions: What brought you in today? Has there been anything you’ve been concerned about? And so on. Then we got down to business.
Since you last came in a year ago, can you estimate how many sexual partners you’ve had?
Oh, around five, I said.
When was the last time you had sex?
About a month ago.
What kind of sex have you had in the last few months?
I’ll spare readers the details of that answer.
He then asked when the last time I had anal sex was. I ask because that’s the highest risk activity of getting HIV. I told him how long it had been.
So in terms of any symptoms, you haven’t had any burning when you pass urine, or discharge from the penis or anus?
Nope, I said.
Dr Marcus explained he’d be testing my blood for HIV and syphilis, my urine for gonorrhoea and chlamydia, he’d take an anal swab also for gonorrhoea and chlamydia plus a throat swab for gonorrhoea.
What, no urethral swab? No. As you’re not showing any symptoms, like discharge, there’s no need, he said. Besides, most guys don’t like it. Damn. My work mates would be disappointed.
Dr Marcus led me into the examination room where the blood sample was first up. We made pleasant conversation about celebrity gossip while he gently filled the vial with my blood.
Next was the throat swab -“ the bit I like the least due to my over-reactive gag reflexes. I stuck my tongue out, he poked the long cotton bud in and, amazingly, for the first time, I didn’t gag. Seems all that practice was finally paying off.
Then it was time for the anal swab and Dr Marcus explained that these days a lot of male patients prefer to do the swab themselves. I assured him I’d probably be very bad at this and suggested we stick to the traditional method. So I pulled my pants and undies down to my knees, lay down on the examination table, rolled onto my side and drew my knees in a little. Using a moistened cotton bud he swabbed just inside my anus and it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. He then had a good look around back there for warts or any obvious visible symptoms of infection.
He then asked me to roll onto my back, pulled a lamp down over my exposed genitals and did a visual examination, checking for signs of herpes or other skin conditions, then physically examined my testicles for lumps.
Dr Marcus told me to pull my pants back on and handed me a little container to take to the toilet and wee into, which is definitely the most fun bit. And that’s it! Examination over.
A week later I picked up my results and, as suspected, I was all clear. So you see, there’s no reason to be afraid of getting an STD check. The whole process is quite unobtrusive, very responsible on your part and, well, really quite enjoyable (though that may just be me).
Go to the SSHC’s website www.sesahs.nsw.gov.au/sydhosp/SSHC.htm