Queer Wellness Centre caters for health needs of LGBTQIAQ+ people

Dr Claudia Do Vale founder of the Queer Wellness Centre, Miss South Africa Sasha-Lee Olivier and Thami Dish.
Dr Claudia Do Vale founder of the Queer Wellness Centre, Miss South Africa Sasha-Lee Olivier and Thami Dish.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

It was a conversation during a friend’s birthday party that planted the seed for the Queer Wellness Centre, according to founder Dr Claudia Do Vale, a nephrologist by profession.

"As per usual, everyone was picking my brain and through the discussion I suddenly realised that no one was having their kidney function checked when taking PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis to prevent HIV]. This may seem like a small thing but as a kidney specialist I thought that it was really vital to know so I asked the question, 'well who is looking after your kidneys?' The replies to this question were 'why do we need our kidney function to be checked?'"

The doctor then informed her friends that the medication they were on could cause complications such as kidney failure over time and she realised that general practitioners who were giving out these medications either didn’t know fully what can happen or were bigoted and often advised patients to just practise safe sex and not take PrEP.

“I jokingly then said to everyone, 'well maybe I should become the nephrologist for all the gay men in Joburg' and from that idea this [the clinic] has now opened up. What I then started to look into is what are the issues that affect the queer community as a whole.”

Dr Claudia Do Vale founder of the Queer Wellness Centre.
Dr Claudia Do Vale founder of the Queer Wellness Centre.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

The Queer Wellness Centre is located on Oxford Street in Rosebank and has been open since November 2019, with the official launch event on Tuesday March 10 2020.  A large artwork spelling out the letters "love" greets you in the reception area. The letters are made of yellow metal bananas with two of them rainbow coloured, made by Jessica and Josh Berman of The Arts Club.

There are other artworks in the centre made by LGBTQI artists and they're for sale. The space is open and inviting and the artworks give those waiting for the doctor something to look at. The centre offers a holistic wellness service to members of the LGBTQI + community.

“Really it is its own sub-space of specialised care and from very simple things like, if you are a trans woman and you’ve been on hormone therapy for five years you should have screening for both prostate and breast cancer. Which medical aid will approve it because they’re like, you’re either male or you’re female… so it’s a really big and very individualised field and as much as we have LGBTQIAQ+, each group has their own health needs and their own health problems and that was really the idea of this space," said Do Vale.

Miss South Africa Sasha-Lee Olivier and Thami Dish at the Queer Wellness Centre.
Miss South Africa Sasha-Lee Olivier and Thami Dish at the Queer Wellness Centre.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

The private medical practice is one of five queer-friendly clinics in the country.  The centre has a team of specialists, sub-specialists and general practitioners who are interested and knowledgeable in healthcare for queer people. 

“We actually have a sub-specialist room and our sub-specialists are a plastic surgeon, urologist, endocrinologist, myself as a nephrologist as well as an infectious diseases specialist. We have  a general practitioner, we have a specific sexual health clinic, we look at sexual health issues and STI [sexually transmitted infections]  and we can do swabs with both clothing, anus as well as using urine, in particular looking for DNA, so no more vaginal swabs or penal swabs, we’re  trying to make things new technology and make things easier.

"We have a specific health clinic and a big focus is mental health - we have a psychiatrist and a psychologist here. You are able to come yourself; you can self-refer and book online,”  Do Vale said. As of July of 2020 a paediatrician will be joining the medical team.

The doctor said they tried to get funding to get the centre going but failed as it is a new concept.

“This is all self-funded, I pretty much put my life savings into here, to get it up and running…medical equipment is expensive, it’s over a million to get it up and running. It’s very much a passion project and just something I believed was needed. It is a fee for service but we are really trying and we are working on a lot of things to make it more integrated, to then become available for people who can’t afford it.”

Toilets at the Queer Wellness Centre, which is an inclusive space.
Toilets at the Queer Wellness Centre, which is an inclusive space.
Image: Veli Nhlapo

The centre is linked to all the major medical aids and charges medical aid rates for consultations. It differentiates itself by being the first centre that offers anoscopies for members of the LGBTQIAQ+ community and for people who have anal sex. 

Do Vale went to the US to train at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), on how to give anoscopies. She said she was told she’s the first person from the continent who enquired about the training and that there are only 300 registered practitioners in the world with IENT who can do the procedure. 

“Ultimately, I would like to train other people from here; I definitely would like to make sure that people learn the skill because it’s not only ... doing biopsies of abnormal cells, it’s also about the other side of anal health and of treating lesions. So that’s what the whole course is about; it’s about diagnosing and treating,” she said.

Miss SA Sasha Lee Oliver was in attendance as well as Thami Koloto of the Thami Dish Foundation and founder of the Feather Awards, to show his support.

“I appreciate the fact that somebody, somewhere is observing and is aware of the challenges that queer people face," said Koloto. "I mean we mustn’t be allergic to the fact that we have been ill treated by the public healthcare system and also to some extent the private healthcare system that hasn’t taken the initiative to find out our core issues or challenges where our health is concerned… the queer community on its own has very limited services… mine is to wish you luck and say you have our support full on… well done, good luck and we’re fully behind you. We look forward to this being a great space and a safe space for us to better understand our health.” 

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