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9 January 2016

Liz and I begged around for condoms and headed into the darkened room

“Would a glove do?” I asked Liz. “Maybe,” she said. “But they aren’t usually stretchy enough.”

By Phil Whitaker

I was in the middle of a tutorial with my registrar when a knock came at the door. One of the other GPs, Liz, poked her head inside.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but have you got any condoms?”

I looked at her. Her hair was in its usual neat ponytail, and nothing about her complexion hinted at passions aroused. Nevertheless, clearly an opportunity had arisen that she’d decided she couldn’t allow to pass. I pride myself on being open-minded. I only hoped it was with a fellow staff member rather than a patient.

“Oh! No!” she laughed, as it suddenly dawned on her how her request had sounded. “I’m trying to do a coil. The vaginal walls keep prolapsing.”

The coil is a popular “fit and forget” method of contraception. Coils are introduced through the cervix and sit in the cavity of the womb, preventing pregnancy for five years. In order to insert one, the doctor uses a duck-billed instrument called a speculum. When the speculum blades are fully opened, the cervix can be accessed at the top of the vagina – except in occasional cases like the one Liz explained she was contending with, where the vaginal walls were extremely lax and kept folding in to the space created by the opening blades, obscuring her view.

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These days, with virtually all surgeries staffed by GPs of both sexes, family planning is invariably dealt with by female doctors, so I had never encountered this problem. Nor had I come across the trick to get round it. Liz explained that you cut the end off a condom, creating a “sleeve” to slide over the speculum, which then holds back the prolapsing walls to allow proper access.

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“We might just have some,” I told her, and we set off for the treatment room. A decade ago, the practice participated in something called the C-Card scheme. Young people were issued with “condom cards” at schools and youth clubs, with which they could obtain free prophylactics. The idea was to reduce teenage pregnancy and sexual infection by removing the cost of buying condoms. Like many well-meaning projects, however, the C-Card failed to take off. To teenagers, making an appointment with the nurse for such purposes screamed I’M GOING TO HAVE SEX! and was therefore hideously embarrassing. There was a chance we still had the unused stocks somewhere.

None of the nurses was around, so Liz and I started to search the treatment-room cupboards. These are like a museum of failed public health initiatives. There were some old “portion plates” – plastic crockery divided into segments labelled for meat (small), potatoes/pasta (small) and vegetables (large). We found bundles of leaflets left over from drives to encourage exercise and to inform about safe drinking.

Just as I was about to give up, I glimpsed a box right at the back of the top shelf. A life-size rubber model of an erect phallus was poking out. I felt a moment of sympathy for my nursing colleagues: this is what they’d been supposed to use to educate the youth of the district in the proper application of a condom.

Although the nurses had kept hold of the model penis, the box proved to be otherwise empty.

“Would a glove do?” I asked Liz.

“Maybe,” she said. “But they aren’t usually stretchy enough.”

I thought the gloves that came inside our wound dressing packs were thinner and more pliable than the standard examination ones, so we went down the corridor. We were just entering the storeroom when one of our nurses came along.

“Oh, Andrea,” I said. “Do you know if we still have any condoms?”

Her expression probably mirrored mine earlier. It must have been some sight: Liz and me heading into a darkened storeroom, begging passers-by for contraceptives.

Later, Liz told me that the glove hadn’t worked, so she’d had to refer her patient to the family planning clinic. But the “condom quest” caused a lot of hilarity that lives on in our surgery folklore today. 

This article appears in the 06 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue