Forensic nurses help sexual assault patients through a difficult exam

Published: May. 11, 2023 at 5:01 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Pictures of an operating room, or a busy clinic may come to mind when the word “nurse” is said.

But nurses who work in one room at the Child Advocacy Center in Reno take care of men, women and children who are in the midst of the worst event of their lives--sexual assault.

Nurse Cate Barnett can tell patients she knows what they are going through, because she does.

“I was a teenager at the time and as a teenager you are afraid,” she says. “You are afraid of what your parents are going to say, you are afraid of what your peers are going to say. You don’t know the process. You don’t know who to go to.”

Barnett is one of four nurses in our area who works on the Sexual Assault Response Team or SART. The nurse’s job here is to collect evidence that may remain after a sexual assault. It’s an emotional and scientific experience.

A SART nurse must help the patient through the process.

“Every patient who comes to us has gone through a traumatic experience,” says Debbi Robison, a SART Nurse. “And so just giving them back their control. Giving them back whatever was taken away from them. Reassuring them, that they are ok.”

Exams can take up to an hour and a half.

Specimen collection, pictures and sometimes clothes too may have to be sent to the lab. Some patients turn away before they enter the doorway and never come back. Some patients may want as much evidence taken as possible to solve the crime. It seems that no two cases are alike.

Down the hall in a colorful room, children are examined. They too may have experienced trauma.

Or they may simply receive a full check-up after being placed in foster care.

“We do head-to-toe evaluation to make sure that those existing problems are being well taken care of,” says Nurse Practitioner Steven Schell with the CAC Medical Unit. “Or if there are any new problems that haven’t been seen or taken care of before.”

The work may seem depressing to some.

But these nurses talk of their rewarding work and how critical their services are. They understand however, why there is a shortage of forensic nurses nationwide.

Those who do this type of nursing say it is not for everyone. Characteristics include empathy, being non-judgmental, and an interest in forensics.