Share page: 
Specially trained nurses serve sexual assault victims and justice
As Certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Sarah Gill, left, and Wendy Overstreet can make all the difference both for victims of sexual assault and for the justice system.

Specially trained nurses serve sexual assault victims and justice

University and community groups are partnering to help build a cadre of specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners.

In her work, Wendy Overstreet sometimes sees the worst of humanity.

Overstreet, the house supervisor at Via Christi Hospital in Pittsburg, is a trained sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) and she admits that while all sexual assault cases are horrific, some are more difficult to handle, emotionally.

“Some cases are harder than others,” Overstreet said. “Sometimes it is not that simple to move on. I am human. I have cried, gotten angry or upset. I try not to take it home, but my emotions are hard to hide.”

Being a SANE nurse is difficult, demanding work that requires skills and training that bridge the medical, legal, law enforcement and mental health fields. In addition to meeting the medical and psychological needs of the patient, SANE nurses have to know about evidence collection and the law.

In Pittsburg, only Overstreet and Sarah Gill, also an RN at Via Christi, are certified SANE nurses. That means that when a possible sexual assault case comes in, chances are good that one of them will be called.

This year, Pittsburg State University, PSU student groups and Via Christi Hospital have partnered with local law enforcement and social service agencies to train up to four SANE nurses to serve the area.

“In this community, we’ve had two trained sexual assault nurse examiners,” said Kathleen Sandness, M.D., medical director at PSU’s Bryant Student Health Center. “Both are certified to handle adult cases, but just one was trained to handle pediatric cases. They get called out at all times of the day or night. This work is wear and tear on the soul and we were wearing them out.”

Sandness said the lack of readily available SANE nurses meant that victims sometimes had to wait or go to facilities some distance away.

Steve Erwin, PSU vice president for student life, said the university has been concerned for some time about the resources available to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“It’s been a longstanding problem,” Erwin said. “It was a topic of discussion when Dr. Sandness came on board, and she helped pull the different entities together to come up with a solution.”

The Sexual Assault Task Force came together in January. Agencies at the table included PSU and PSU Police, Via Christi, the Pittsburg Police Department, the Crawford County and Cherokee County sheriffs’ offices, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Safehouse, the Children’s Advocacy Center and Community Health.

In addition to drafting protocols for law enforcement and health care providers, the group sent out a letter soliciting funds to help train up to four SANE nurses and provide continuing education for those nurses.

“We were so pleased with the response,” Sandness said.

The Via Christi medical staff started a fund in memory of Dr. Modesto Gometz to cover the cost of training at least one nurse with enough money to proceed to further training for pediatric cases, Sandness said. Kansas Imaging Consultants at Via Christi contributed enough to fund a second position.

Sandness said she was especially pleased at the PSU student response. Support came from several student groups, including individual Greek chapters, the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Council, the Residence Hall Assembly, Students Advocating for Gender Equality and Students for Violence Prevention (SVP).

“It’s a work in progress,” Sandness said, “Our goal is to have a team of four trained SANE nurses on a rotating call schedule. We are still looking for nurses who are interested in being trained.”

Sandness said the nurses who go through the SANE training need to be special people.

“It’s not something every nurse can do,” Sandness said.

Overstreet said she was drawn to it for a number of reasons.

“I was looking to get involved more with Via Christi and was told there was a need for sexual assault nurse examiners,” Overstreet said. “I like the forensic aspect as well as working with other organizations, collaboratively, to help the patient receive what they need, and to educate others about sexual assault.”

She said when treating victims of sexual assault, the goal is to give the patients back their control.

“During the examination, we give control to the patient by allowing the patient to choose who is in the room with them during the exam, how they want the lights, and whether or not they want distraction. If something hurts, we stop. We are more sensitive to their needs and wants and we are attentive to both their mental and their physical well-being.”

And as to the emotional health of the SANE nurses, Overstreet said care and support is available.

“At our facility we have pastoral care not only for the patients and their families, but for the nurses also. We are taught, as any nurse is, to find ways outside the hospital to help deal with stress. Sometimes, it’s helpful to just tell myself it’s OK to cry.”

Share this story

heading image heading image heading image