Jill Ferguson and Carrie Potter provide special care to people after a traumatic and very personal experience.
Ferguson, emergency department manager at Methodist Jennie Edmundson Hospital; and Potter, sexual abuse coordinator at Catholic Charities, are members of the Sexual Assault Response Team, which includes law enforcement officials and others.
Ferguson leads Jennie’s team of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, who are the first to perform a medical examination on sexual assault victims after they enter the hospital.
“When we have anyone come in who’s been assaulted, the first thing we do is call an advocate; but we also explain to the patient the options they have,” she said. “Some want (an evidence) kit collected and they want to report it to the police, and some people don’t want to report it — so we kind of go over the different options for people.”
The victim isn’t always a female, Ferguson said.
“We do have males that come in,” she said. “If we do have a male come in, we would have a chaperone.”
That would probably be a victim advocate or another staff member, Ferguson said. There are a few male nurses in the emergency department, but they haven’t been trained on sexual assault cases yet, she said.
Evidence can be collected even if the victim doesn’t come in immediately following the assault, Ferguson said. And they don’t have to decide right away whether they want to report it to police.
“It’s best if they come within 120 hours — the sooner the better, but we can take patients up to 120 hours (after a sexual assault),” she said.
Said Potter, “They can have a kit collected anonymously and then have it stored by law enforcement for up to 10 years. A lot of people do report when they feel safe, when they feel comfortable.”
For some, that may take a long time, she said.
“The patient, this is the first time they can gain control back,” Ferguson said. “Something forcible has happened to them, and we want to give them back control.”
The nurses also try to address the risk of sexually transmitted disease, Ferguson said.
“We can offer antibiotics to prevent gonorrhea, chlamydia and trichomoniasis,” she said.
The nurse can do a preliminary test for HIV, which only shows whether the person had the virus before the assault, Ferguson said. To find out if the virus entered them during the assault, the person must be tested six months later.
The SANE program, launched more than 10 years ago, has changed the way the hospital approaches sexual assault cases — mainly because of the specialized training the nurses get, Ferguson said.
“I think we’ve come a long way since we first started,” she said. “When I was first out of nursing school, I had to read step-by-step instructions, because I didn’t know what to do.”
Nurses didn’t know how to handle evidence or even talk appropriately to the patients about the situation, Ferguson said. Physicians handled the exam. Now, they usually just examine victims for signs of injury.
The number of nurses trained to handle sexual assault cases has increased from two to six, she said.
With Catholic Charities’ involvement, the care is more holistic, too.
“It’s taking a victim-centered approach,” Potter said. “Most of our role when we come in is to provide emotional support, and then we notify them of their victim rights. Then we just kind of notify them of what the system offers.”
In Iowa, courts can issue a sexual assault protection order, she said.
Catholic Charities provides crisis counseling but refers patient to other agencies for long-term therapy, Potter said.
“If the case goes through and the perpetrator is prosecuted, we would go through the process with them,” she said.
In April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Catholic Charities reaches out to the community with information, Potter said.
The organization sends some information out through social media. In addition, it assembles an exhibit featuring photographs of sexual assault survivors holding poster board with a message or statement on it. It gives them a chance to have a voice.
“It’s inspiring, I think, for survivors,” she said.
The exhibit is displayed at various locations throughout the city during April, Potter said.