Music played loudly from the health fair tables in front of me. It competed with the chatter of volunteers discussing their noncontroversial topics of fitness, diabetes, and smoking. The mixture of staff, patients, and community members laughed enthusiastically as they played interactive games to learn about each topic. I stood eagerly in front of my poster, waiting for the crowd to approach me. Slowly, they neared my station, only getting close enough to shoot me a glare before quickly walking to another table. It hurt that my welcoming smile wasn’t enough to draw people in. I looked around and compared my project to those around me. My game was just as interactive, my poster was just as colorful, and my presentation was just as informative. I saw one clear difference: my poster displayed one of the most taboo words in American culture: sex. I realized that though I had become comfortable talking about sex in the past weeks researching, other people were not as receptive.
Sex is so stigmatized in the United States that people would rather lie to their children about how babies are made than talk to them about sex. This environment creates a community where people feel uncomfortable asking important questions about a topic that is natural and healthy. So, although I had prepared for weeks to promote informed safe sex, I was met with a community who rejected the topic. To accommodate these feelings, my group changed our approach by advertising our game as a test to people’s knowledge rather than putting the emphasis on sex. Now, these adults became interested in proving how much they know. Our activity, called “the pull-out game” prompted participants to pull out a card with true or false questions to test their knowledge on sexual health.
Questions that were commonly answered incorrectly included “wearing two condoms is safer than one”, “you can always tell if someone has an STI by looking at them”, and “you can’t get an STI from oral sex”. Through conversing with the public, we broke down significant misconceptions about sexual health and created an environment where people felt comfortable talking informatively about the topic. We handed out many pamphlets in English Spanish and Chinese on different kinds of sexually transmitted infections and forms of birth control, and answered extra questions afterwards. When handing out pamphlets, we persisted in being cognizant of people’s backgrounds. We prioritized handing out a flyer with sexual health clinic locations, making sure to advertise that these clinics provide low to no cost services and that no appointment is necessary, regardless of immigration status, health insurance, or ability to pay.
My experiences in the health fair reinforced for me that issues in the emergency department are a reflection of society. In my day to day experiences in the emergency room, sex is not the only taboo subject addressed. Substance use and homelessness are prevalent in the hospital and are also taboo subjects in “normal” society. However, in an emergency situation, talking to a person about their medical history and housing situation, however controversial, is paramount in effectively treating that person.
Many situations like these prove that in healthcare, it is essential to genuinely understand and be sensitive towards a patient’s background, education, and values. I am learning that this rounded outlook is necessary in ensuring patients feel treated and heard. In my role as a volunteer, I am developing skills to more effectively communicate and sympathize, while being cognizant of people’s disparities. I am uniquely positioned this summer to listen to patients and community members and learn important lessons from them that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.