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Forensic Nursing offers sexual assault victims 'glimmer of hope'

Editor's note: Nov. 6-10 is Forensic Nursing Week. To honor our specially trained nurses who give their hands and hearts to help victims of sexual assault, we re-present this feature article from the Winter 2015 issue of Via Christi Life magazine.

As an emergency room nurse at Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph, Diana Schunn cared for numerous victims of sexual assault.

While she and her colleagues strived to provide them with the best care possible within the fastpaced environment of an ER, Schunn says she always wished she could do more.

So, 20 years ago, when she read about a program designed to teach nurses how to respond to the needs of patients who’d been sexually assaulted, she approached the hospital administrators and asked if she could go for training.

Ten minutes into Schunn’s presentation about the then-new concept of moving the care of sexual assault patients from the ER to a specialized unit, Sister Helene Lentz, CSJ, a senior hospital leader, jumped up and gave her blessing.

“I had expected a long, drawn-out process,” says Schunn. Instead, she was charged with developing a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Response Team (SANE/SART) at Via Christi.

Today, the program continues to thrive, although under new leadership, as Schunn left six years ago to serve as director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County.

But before Schunn left Via Christi, she helped launch similar programs statewide and groomed a strong group of specially trained sexual assault nurse examiners to carry on the work that she and Sister Helene began — nurses like Tina Peck.

Lots of hugs

Peck joined Via Christi as a labor and delivery nurse 14 years ago, putting her at the bedside at what typically was a joyous moment in her patients’ lives.

Still, she was intrigued when she learned about the work being done by the SANE/SART team at St. Joseph, who care for patients at some of the most horrific times of their lives.

“Initially, it was the combination of law and nursing and the opportunity to expand my learning that interested me,” says Peck.

In 2008, she became one of the team’s 11 nurses who provide medical care to victims of sexual violence, while carefully collecting and preserving any evidence in a manner that would be admissible in a court of law, should they be called to testify.

But it was something deeper that led Peck, now the program coordinator, to make it her full-time calling. “Our patients are terrified when they walk through the door,” she says, even if their response to trauma might seem to indicate otherwise.

“By the time they’re ready to leave, it’s always with lots of hugs.”

Although the job can be emotionally taxing — especially when the victim resembles one of Peck’s three children — she takes comfort in the role she and her team play in their patients’ healing.

“We’re their first glimmer of hope,” she says.

An expanding ripple

Today, the SANE/SART program is under Via Christi Forensic Nursing Services, which also cares for victims of child and elder abuse and domestic violence.

Since its inception, the program’s nurse examiners have cared for nearly 6,000 victims of sexual assault, ranging from less than a year old to 101. Its outreach and education efforts have led to the formation of SANE/SART programs statewide, including at Via Christi’s hospitals in Pittsburg and Manhattan.

It all started with one nurse’s suggestion of how to improve patient care, and Via Christi’s commitment to the poor and vulnerable.

“When Sister Helene saw a way to make an impact on people’s lives, she did,” says Schunn.

“Via Christi continues to do that today.”

About Roz Hutchinson

Roz Hutchinson is a Wichita wife, mother and chief spoiler of six grandkids and three Chihuahuas, a die-hard women's basketball fan, and director of Communications and Public Relations for Ascension Via Christi.