I get a Pap smear check-up once a year. Am I paranoid? Perhaps a little. But here’s my simple logic: If we have the technology to prevent early death, we should utilise it. Let’s face it; those beautiful pink tunnels of untold pleasures are also receptacles for any number of guileful infections, all as eager to get in as the next dick. HPV (human papillomavirus), for example, will sneak its way into four out of five people (mostly through sexual contact). Two strains of HPV are the cause of 70% to 80% of cervical cancer. *
I lived in Asia for awhile; if six-and-a-half years can be called awhile. My first challenge upon reaching home (Australia) was to jump back on the wagon of health benefits. Why should this be a challenge, you ask? Excellent question! The answer: I didn’t have enough identification to earn the points necessary to prove I was Australian.
Let’s be clear: My family tree whittles back to convicts on both sides. I come from people who were prisoners of people who said, “Ho-hum, let’s just steal Australia from its natives like one rips a rug from beneath a disrobed man. Yes, he will fall (and possibly crack his head on the wardrobe), but let’s do it anyway.”
Given Australia’s history, I’m willing to bet that some of my ex-convict ancestors and their sprog were just as racist as the royal navy seafarers who carted them over on their wooden rat-infested death traps.
It’s an understatement that this is not a matter of pride. However, I belong to no other country and therefore feel that I do have the right to health care in Australia – hopefully without giving the government the totality of my meagre savings.
Oh, but the points! The precious points needed to prove I’m Australian. Those points are to be coveted, like jewels or pearls or EpiPens for people with severe allergies. And how does one gather these vital points? One rings government offices and waits on the phone for long periods of time. One is passed from one enforcer of bureaucracy to the next. One sends letters, receives letters, fills out forms. One begins to develop a phobia of forms. One falls into a cyclic nightmare involving all aforementioned activities. One eventually breaks down in a Medicare office, crying. A previously angry lady softens and takes pity. And, after ten months, one is given healthcare benefits.
So, I receive Medicare. I live in Melbourne now; not Tasmania. I go to a bulk-billing doctor. I’m from the countryside, so I do not know that big-city bulk-billing doctors in Australia care more about getting home to their first wine than their patients.
I sit in the waiting room, staring at pamphlets sporting enlightening statements such as “Living with Alzheimer’s can leave one forgetful,” and “Depression can lead to suicide,” and “If you don’t shit twice a day you probably have bowel cancer”…. or something along those lines. I pick up a pamphlet about HPV and how is causes cervical cancer (this one is not a made-up poster) and, remembering I’m just about to get a Pap smear, quickly replace the pamphlet. I’m going through with the test; no need to make myself more paranoid than necessary.
The doctor calls me in. She is Vietnamese and I’m glad – I feel a little homesick for Asia. I smile at her. She furrows her brow. I say, “I’ll have a little something for my mental health as an entrée, and a Pap smear as the main, please.”
Of course, I don’t really say that. Instead, I explain I’ve had a few bad experiences and ask if she can help me. And please follow it up with an examination of my private parts.
“I’m no good with mental health issues.”
I’m not sure how to respond to this. She turns around and opens a cupboard. Inside are piles of anti-depressants, piled haphazardly like Christmas presents wrapped by drunk parents. Two boxes fall out. She grabs one. “Maybe you should try these,” she says.
I take the box tentatively. “Would you mind printing out some information about this drug?” I ask politely.
She stares at me as if I just asked her to hike up Everest. “Did you know I have to pay for the paper here? I have to pay for my own ink, too.”
I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable. “It doesn’t matter – I can look up the information myself,” I tell her. I have a feeling that I can find out more about this drug on Google Scholar than she is willing or capable of telling me in this office.
She is looking at me as though I’m a mosquito carrying malaria. This is the woman about to crank open my vagina. I wish I’d gone with another doctor, now, but I want to get this over with.
“Take off your pants and shoes,” she tells me. She is lucky I’m not shy, for she doesn’t offer a curtain or even bother to turn away.
In a moment of sick humour, I consider doing a jig, just so she can see my bottom wobble. Maybe it’d evoke a reaction other than a scowl. Of course, I don’t do this. I wish to do such things all the time, but I hardly ever do. People tend to get offended by impromptu bum-jigs, especially when said bum is nude.
“Get on the bench,” she says, satisfied that I’m stripped waist-down.
“Where should I put my clothes?”
“Oh, wherever. On the chair.”
A little unconventional, but okay. I follow her orders and climb on the table, lying back. There are no stirrups for my feet or any of the usual dooverlackies.
“Put your hands under your lower-back,” she says.
She grabs one of my hands and indicates that it should be positioned under my coccyx so that my pelvis is tilted upwards. I do so with the other hand, too.
“Open your legs.”
As I said, I’ve had Pap tests before. I rejoice at living in an era where I won’t die of the flu or the pox. At least, not in Australia. At least, not in Australia once you manage to get on Medicare.
My mind rolls backwards in time. I remember watching how efficiently Korean women deal with fish in the market. My present situation is – agh!
She’s plunged the speculum right into my pink bits without any warning whatsoever. For those who are squeamish, feel free to depart now. For those who don’t know, a speculum is a simple and nifty device allowing access and dilation of orifices. Usually, it is not that bad. On this occasion, however, my vaginal muscles clamp down like they’re trying to deter the cold finger of metal. My vagina can’t be blamed for this. She is surprised.
Normally, this is when the nice doctor says, “Okay, you’ll feel a little pinch now, but it won’t last long.” In my experience, this warning has been consistent, whether the Pap was performed in Korea, Australia, Thailand or, yes, Vietnam too.
This time I am not afforded any such warning. I clamp my eyes shut as hard metal plunges into my cervical cottage and steals a sample of pink wallpaper. Finally, she withdraws and puts away her instruments without a word.
I stay on my back awkwardly for a few moments. My knees fall inwards.
“Have you finished?” I ask finally.
“Yes,” is her detailed response.
I slip off the edge of the bench, half naked, slightly wobbly in the thighs. I gather my clothes. Once again, she offers no privacy, so I just pull on my pants in front of her.
I reiterate: I’m not a shy person. However, hostility directed in my vaginal area does leave me somewhat shaken.
She complains some more about paper, ink, and (at some length) about living in Australia.
About fifty percent of my friends are Asian. I connect easily with many Asian cultures. I find drunk Koreans infinitely more amusing than drunk Australians. So you can imagine my own shock when I want to say to this Vietnamese doctor, “Why don’t you go back to your own country?!”
I don’t say it. Of course I don’t! I know the xenophobia directed at Asians in our country and will never join the hateful ranks.
I still want to say it, though. Not because she is Asian, but because she’s a shit doctor.
I leave. I research the pills she gave me. They seem fairly innocuous, so I trial them for a week. Nothing happens and I throw them in the bin. My Pap results arrive. They say that, despite the shock my little pink cottage received, it is sturdy and in need of no repairing.
For a moment I wonder if I should get another Pap smear – just to make sure this invasive procedure has caused no damage. I dismiss the idea as being truly neurotic.
To clarify, ladies, this post is not designed to discourage you from getting check-ups. The type of test I received is extremely rare and, I am certain, still better than getting cancer and not knowing about it until it’s too late.
So what it this post designed for? In order to vent. In order that men know what we go through. In order that doctors know to proceed with gentle care. In order that we remember to take care of ourselves. In order…
Mostly in order to vent, I think. Well… venting over, this post is done!
* Source: http://www.cancervic.org.au/about-cancer/cancer_types/cervical_cancer
* Numbers for information on HPV vaccines in Australia: http://www.hpvvaccine.org.au/the-hpv-vaccine/how-when-where-vaccine-given.aspx