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Unstandardized testing

A journey through the sometimes confusing world of STD screening

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"I'm just trying to figure out what tests my insurance covers," I plead quietly.

I'm sitting in the waiting room at the OB/GYN, and I'm on the phone with my health insurance company. I've already been transferred multiple times, and my patience is wearing thin.

"What kind of tests?" the woman on the other end of the line inquires.

"STD tests," I whisper back, cupping my hand over the mouthpiece of my phone. I furtively glance around the room — a massive, bright, cheery space filled with flowery upholstered couches, pregnant women and every kind of magazine ladies might want to read neatly stacked on end tables — to see if anyone heard me.

Maybe I'm being paranoid, but it feels like the other women, if they're not happily chatting with each other about their due dates and birth plans, are watching me — judging me — from behind copies of Us Weekly and Parent magazines. A toddler is playing uncomfortably close to my purse in the adjacent chair.

"I can't hear you. What kind of tests?" the woman on the phone says. I sigh.

"STD tests," I say loudly.

I now have the entire room's attention. The woman next to me drags her toddler away from whatever hazardous material — hypodermic needles, sex toys, or God forbid, condoms — might be in my purse. Blood rises to my cheeks in shame, and it feels like a scarlet "A" is burning itself into my chest.

"Hold, please," the woman on the phone responds.

I close my eyes and silently curse my mother. This is totally her fault. Well, sort of.

Several weeks ago, I was talking to my mom, and she was going on and on about how one of her friends' daughters had contracted HIV from her boyfriend. As she babbled on about it, I realized that she was actually fishing for info.

"Mom, I don't have HIV," I told her at the time. "Stop worrying about it."

"You might!" she'd responded. "I don't know these guys you go out with. You need to get tested."

She brought it up about a million times after that, so even though I've always been careful — there were no hypodermic needles or sex toys in my purse, but there were condoms — I needed to get my mom off my back. I promised her that I'd get a full STD screening at my yearly appointment with my gynecologist.

During my gyno exam, the nurse advised that only my insurance company could tell me which tests were covered. So, post-violation by extremely cold speculum, here I am, stuck in the waiting room in "hold, please" purgatory, phone pressed to my ear, screechy Muzak slowly driving me insane.

After I enjoy the symphonic version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," the insurance rep comes back on the line to inform me that only two STD tests are covered, and neither of them are HIV. She can't tell me how much it will cost to screen for the rest. (According to Chastity.com — the first website that pops up when you Google "How many STDs are there" — today there are more than 25 different kinds of STDs. Those chaste people should know.)

I talk to the cheerful woman perched at the gyno office front window and call the lab, but nobody can give me an exact amount, instead estimating that it could cost somewhere in the range of a few hundred dollars. My waiting room audience is riveted, waiting to see what I do next.

I start to feel the blood rushing to my cheeks again; not out of shame this time, but out of anger. Why was it so difficult to get a firm answer? And why should I feel bad — or judged — about any of this? Wasn't I being a responsible citizen — no, a responsible human being — by ensuring that I wasn't carrying and passing along a host of diseases that could potentially maim, and even kill?

Defeated, I submit to the two tests my insurance covers. I cringe as the needle is inserted into my arm, and wonder how many people — men or women — go through this much trouble for an STD test. As the nurse affixes a bandage to my inner arm, I feel like I've turned in my homework unfinished. This will not do. I'm determined to get an A on this test.

As I walk to my car, I look up the website for the public health center on my phone. I discover that I can visit one of the area clinics and pay $10 for a full STD panel screening. Sold.

The next morning, I pull up to the center. After wandering around the hallway for several minutes, I finally find Room 116, otherwise unmarked, the window on the door completely obscured by black paper. Apparently, nobody wants to look at the sad folks needing STD testing this early in the morning.

I quietly walk in to a tiny, austere room with a smattering of half-awake folks slumped over in chairs. There are no fun magazines, and certainly no floral-patterned anything.

I sit in a rickety plastic chair, filling out the paperwork, using a version of my mother's name, partially because I think it's funny, but mostly because I don't have to provide a photo ID here. After a few minutes, a friendly nurse calls my number and escorts me back to a tiny but clean exam room. It was quick and easy.

Two weeks later, I returned and got my clean bill of health for my mom. Well, for myself. But also for my mom.

"See, I don't have HIV," I texted my mother. "Satisfied?"

She responded with a smiley face. And all was right in the world again.

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