Pat O'Hanlon stands in front of an Omaha Burke High School classroom. The longtime nurse looks down at a group of high school sophomores who look like they would rather be anywhere else.
He grins maniacally.
“Here come the penises and the vaginas!” he yells in mock horror. “Aaaaaah!”
It is time for sex education, that time-honored tradition where teenagers normally squirm in their seats as an adult nervously tells them things that ehe adult doesn't want to say and the teens don't want to hear.
But it quickly becomes apparent that this will not be normal.
Here's a photo of what syphilis looks like, Pat says. Ick, the students say.
Pat shrugs. Those are called shakers. Syphilitic shakers.
“Syphilitic shakers. That's a great name for a band!” he yells. The students all laugh.
Here is a photo of genital warts. “Nasty!” one student yells.
“It's not going to kill you or nothing,” Pat says. “It's just going to suck really, really, really bad.”
Oh, and students, here's a riddle: “What's the difference between love and herpes?” Pat asks.
“Herpes lasts forever,” Pat says, and now the entire room groans for a different reason.
By this point in the lecture, I have a sneaking suspicion that Pat O'Hanlon and the word “normal” do not often appear in the same sentence.
He just turned 50, he looks 35 and he is pogo-ing around this classroom like he's 15.
He is an STD nurse at OneWorld Community Health Centers who has every reason to be jaded. For the past decade it has been his job to break the bad news to Omaha patients: You have chlamydia. You have herpes. You just tested positive for HIV.
And yet he accepts annual invitations to Burke, Omaha Central and Omaha South in part because he's optimistic that if he does, then maybe these students will not show up at the clinic to get the bad news.
“If you gave me five minutes with every kid in this city, maybe chlamydia would go down,” he says after class is over. “Some of these kids have it. They have it and they are spreading it.”
Omaha, you see, has a bit of an STD problem.
More than 3,200 people in Douglas County tested positive for chlamydia last year, a 5 percent jump from 2011. That's an infection rate nearly twice the national average.
And there is a rising number of positive tests for HIV as well. Younger Omahans, both heterosexual and homosexual, are now contracting the virus, Pat says, in part because the fear and the knowledge of AIDS is diminishing.
“The last kid was 22 or 23,” Pat says. “I saw the bright red line” — the red line that means positive — “and I started crying. It took me a while to be able to go back into the room. I told him, and then I gave him a hug.”
Pat does not want to give out any more of that kind of hugs.
And so he shows the Omaha Burke sophomores the gross photos. He tells jokes, but he also tells them stories from the clinic: A young woman who came in with an STD so painful that she sobbed for a half hour. A young man who tested positive and realized he had gotten it from the last woman he had slept with.
“She's a skank!” he told Pat. Pat stared at him. The young man sat quietly for a minute. “I guess that means I'm a skank,” he said.
Pat tells his own story. In 1985, before he was a nurse, a woman named Daniella called him on the phone.
Christian is HIV positive, she said.
Pat did the math. He had slept with Daniella. And Daniella had slept with Christian.
Christian was HIV positive. That meant ...
“I went and got tested, and for three days I faced my own death,” he says. “You have to understand — it was a death sentence then. You shriveled up and you died.
“The test came back negative. But it scared the absolute crap out of me.”
Mostly Pat tries to level with these teenagers.
Abstinence is best — the only way to truly protect yourself.
Monogamy is second best.
He doesn't talk much about condoms, but he does emphasize, again and again, that most STD tests don't test for everything.
There is virtually no way to be certain that a sexual partner is STD-free, which means you should never have unprotected sex.
The snickering is over, and the Burke kids are earnestly asking questions about the difference between the two types of herpes. They are asking questions about the difference between a canker sore and a cold sore caused by the herpes virus.
They are learning things that Pat says 99 percent of Omaha adults don't know.
“You have the information now,” he says. “You can never say 'Nobody told me,' because I just told you.”
It's almost time for the bell to ring, so Pat thanks the students and walks toward the exit.
A student sitting in the last row stops him. Extends a handshake.
“The funnest speaker I think we have ever had,” he tells Pat.
“Thank you,” Pat O'Hanlon says. He knows then that he reached at least one student today.
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