Comforting strangers who just went through the most traumatic experience of their life isn’t easy. But for sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE), this is their everyday duty.
For the 23 SANE nurses in the Novant Health network, it is their job to provide specialized care, collect evidence, hear the story and be a resource to victims.
“I cry with my patients. I comfort them. I am there to get them the help that they need,” said Emily Bellow, a SANE nurse at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte.
In 2018, 220 patients were seen and evaluated by a SANE nurse at Novant Health facilities. So far this year, that number is about 45.
“Our Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner team is comprised of registered nurses who have received specialized training in performing a holistic forensic examination on individuals who have been sexually assaulted,” said Lina Varela-Gonzalez, director of emergency services at Presbyterian Medical Center. This dedicated team of nurses undergo rigorous training to collect forensic evidence for criminal prosecution, provide safety planning, resources and promote hope and healing.
Bellow was drawn to SANE duty after getting a close-up view of that world through a mentor and witnessing firsthand the passion SANE nurses have for patient care. In that moment, she knew it’s what she wanted to do.
While most people assume all sexual assault cases involve a man attacking a woman, Bellow said that’s not always the case. “All different walks of life come through our doors” regardless of race, gender, age and socioeconomic status, she said.
Every encounter is different
The SANE process of caring for a sexual assault victim begins in the emergency room. By providing a safe and respectful environment, emergency room doctors evaluate the patients first and treat them as needed. From there, a SANE nurse is called for evaluation.
“Every encounter is different,” Bellow said. “At times there are tears – some people may share every detail of the encounter while others may be more withdrawn and quiet. That is all part of the normal trauma process. It’s important to provide our patients with the space and support needed.”
Unlike typical emergency room nurses who see a number of patients a day, a SANE nurse could be with the same patient for hours. SANE nurses are also charged with gathering forensic evidence, using sexual assault kits, for use in criminal prosecutions.
SANE nurses are the first link in the important custody chain of evidence before it’s handed over to law enforcement. The role of these nurses is imperative in successful prosecution of these cases.
Their testimony has the ability to corroborate a victim’s story by attesting to the patient’s condition, evidence collected and other facets of the case. “SANE nurses can educate the jury on information the general public is not aware of,” said Donna Rainwater, assistant district attorney for the Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office.
Bellow shares that the joy of the SANE nurse is the rapport developed with the patient during one the most difficult days of their lives. “I am in a privileged position to make a real difference in their lives while making our communities a safer place.”
Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men have experienced completed or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Novant Health providers are here to help. If you need to talk, licensed therapists are available around the clock to help by calling our Behavioral Health Call Center toll-free 1-800-786-1585 if you are in the Greater Charlotte area and 1-800-718-3550 if you are in the Winston-Salem area.