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The Halifax Sexual Health Centre sees people through their most intimate problems

Inside the independent non-profit, that's equal parts medical clinic, public educator and advocate for all things sexual health.

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Staff at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre. - PATRICK FULGENCIO
  • PATRICK FULGENCIO
  • Staff at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre.

They come to talk about the things they can’t with anyone else.

Some patients will furtively glance up at the waiting room door, wary of running into someone they know—others have travelled long distances to ensure that they don’t. Some book a general appointment because the real reason they’re here is too personal to share over the phone.

In the clinic, it all comes pouring out: I’m pregnant; I need an HIV test; I’m ready to transition.

“There’s so much emotion that comes through this door,” says Emma Rose, a registered nurse and clinic coordinator at the Halifax Sexual Health Centre. “You see a lot of things that tug at your heartstrings, but that’s why we’re here....It’s safe here. It’s like an iron wall.”

Formerly known as the Planned Parenthood Metro Clinic, the Halifax Sexual Health Centre has been the bedrock sexual and reproductive clinic in this city since 1971. The HSHC is an independent non-profit that is equal parts medical clinic, public educator and advocate for all things sexual health.

It’s one of six sexual and reproductive health centres backed by the provincial government, but the only facility that provides a full range of medical services including birth control prescriptions, trans health support, pap tests and STI testing, and it serves as one of two anonymous HIV testing sites in Nova Scotia.

The organization used to run mobile clinics in Musquodobit, Sackville, Spryfield and Preston to keep up with the growing need for information and treatment, but those have since been phased out. Its operations are funded, in part, by the Nova Scotia government as well as grants, partnerships and private donations. Volunteers, like acting executive director Heather McPeake, are really what keep the doors open.

“We build relationships you can’t anywhere else…We never leave anyone hanging,” McPeake says. “I think the staff always want to do more, so there are ways we can do more that would be great.”
McPeake says the centre’s non-profit structure gives it the autonomy to create a truly “safe space” for its patients. The challenge is keeping up with demand.

The clinic saw nearly 10,000 patients just between April and December last year. Patients as young as 12 years old from every part of the province—sometimes even New Brunswick and PEI—travel to Halifax for its services and strict policy of confidential, judgement-free care. The clinic is closed on weekends, and—aside from two evening clinics—keeps normal business hours, so some patients will take a day off work or school just for an appointment.

Most of the clinic’s 12 doctors work one or two shifts a week on top of their regular practices. Nurses like Rose are usually the first line of contact for patients, and in her eight years at the HSHC, she says she’s guided patients through some of the happiest and hardest moments of their lives.

Rose says she has seen patients beam with tears of joy as she injects the first shot of testosterone in their journey towards becoming the person they were always meant to be. She has talked patients through positive STI test results, sexual assaults and abortion referrals. There are appointments she says will sit with her forever.

“When someone is really upset, it’s hard not to take that on yourself,” says Rose. “It’s all about having those boundaries and not internalizing it, but you want to do so much to try and help all of these people in absolutely any way you can.”

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