Chelsea Clinic Madness

One man's trip through the obstacle course of getting an anonymous HIV test in a New York City free clinic

9:25 am: I arrive at the NYC Health Department's Chelsea HIV/STD Clinic and am surprised to hear the clerk at the service desk say to the woman in front of me, "I'm not sure if you can see a doctor today, you may be too late, I'll check. Too, late, too late." I think, "It's only 9:25, but they say that the clinic hours are 8:30 to 4:30?" With a loud "next" from the service desk I am called forward. I inform the clerk that I would like to take an anonymous HIV test and, since I'm here, I might as well have the standard tests done for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). I'm given number 25.

9:35 am: I overhear the clerk saying the clinic was closed for anyone wanting to see a doctor. One woman becomes very upset, exclaiming that she had called and been told over the phone that the clinic hours were from 8:30 am to 4:30 pm, Monday to Friday, that she had taken time off from her part time job, had arranged day care for her child, and had traveled all the way from Yonkers.

11:25 am: It's been two hours since I walked through the clinic's doors, and I had yet to have been seen or spoken to. "Number 23, number 23." There is no reply. They must have become impatient and walked. "Number 37, number 37." Wait a minute, I'm number 25! What happened to my number? Had I been so caught up in people watching that I had missed my call? With a quick check at the service desk I was informed because I was here for testing and also to see the doctor (for STD testing), it would take longer and that I should be patient and hopefully would be called soon. (False hope, I would soon learn.)

1:50 pm: I have been here for over 4 hours still with not a glimmer of hope as to when I might be seen. My patience has vanished. I wish I had never come here. It is hard enough to get the courage to get tested to begin with without all this. I ask to speak to the clinic manager, and tell her that I had been there for almost 5 hours with not so much as a simple reasonable explanation as to why my number had not been called. She apologizes for my discomfort and really seems concerned.

The clinic manager goes on to explain about budget cuts, lack of doctors, a city bureaucracy, and others who would like to see the HIV anonymous clinic closed and HIV testing done at a private physician's office. She explained that they were down a doctor that day, and that the doctors could only see three patients per hour by the clinic's safety guidelines, a good practice. I ask why simple procedures are not set in place, such as informing people about how long their wait is likely to be and what time they realistically need to arrive in order to see a doctor.

2:15 pm: Our conversation has ended, and I return to the service desk and ask if number 25 has been called. Yes, it has, and no one responded, so they called the next number. I am stricken with panic and just as I am about to screeeeeeeeam, the clinic manager comes out and rescues me. My chart is sent to the doctor and I am directed to see a pre-test HIV counselor down a narrow and curving hallway.

3:05 pm: Five hours and thirty five minutes since I entered the clinic, I rush out to catch whatever is left of the day. The sun is shining, and as I walk, I reflect on my clinic visit. I hope my conversation with the clinic manager might provoke some thought to the future and possibly create some change. The clinic provides a very important and vital service to our community, but as with any situation, improving communication between a patient and a service provider is key in meeting the needs of both. It is my opinion that the services we receive before a test or HIV diagnosis are in fact no less important than the services we receive after.

Below I have listed some suggestions that hopefully will save you some time and frustration and make your visit to the Chelsea HIV/STD clinic, or to other similar clinics, a happier one.

  1. Make sure you bring an appropriate I.D. card with you; a picture I.D would be best.

  2. If you need to see a doctor or if you are being tested for STDs, do not show up to the clinic any later than 8:15 am or you may not be seen that day. (Remember, I arrived to the clinic at 9:25 and I was one of the last people to be seen that day.) Sometimes the clinic closes as early as 9 am for appointments to see a doctor. Do not be alarmed to see a line when you arrive, since people start lining up as early as 7:45 on some days.

  3. If you are at the clinic for HIV testing only, you can expect a 1 to 2 hour wait. Do not show up after 2 pm for HIV testing or you might not be seen that day.

  4. Do not wear head phones, because if they call your number and you do not respond you will lose your turn.

  5. If you are seeing a doctor, bring a snack or fruit -- for there are no vending machines. (Why not? Who knows?) I almost starved.

  6. Bring a book, magazine, or crossword puzzle to help the time pass.

  7. Do not hesitate to ask questions. This is a public service!


Tim Wearne is the Coordinator of Volunteer and Client Support Services at Body Positive.

Back to the December 2000 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.