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Local nurses train to work with sexual assault survivors

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Randi B. Hagi
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From left: Tammy Kiser, Michelle Seekford, Jennifer Davison, and Sandra Sprouse of Valley Urgent Care. Seekford, the clinic owner and a family nurse practitioner, is SANE-certified. Nurse practitioners Davison and Sprouse are working towards certification.

Some local nurses are volunteering for extra training that better prepares them to work with patients who've experienced sexual assault. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

In the brightly lit, newly renovated Valley Urgent Care clinic in Harrisonburg, there's one room that's set up a bit differently than an ordinary medical space, with a comfy couch and decorative pillows. That room is reserved for SANE exams – SANE stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. When a patient who's been through an assault comes in, a specially trained nurse does a physical exam; talks through medications that prevent STDs and pregnancy, if needed; and collects forensic evidence of the attack – if that is what the patient wants.

Michelle Seekford, the family nurse practitioner who owns the clinic, explains –

MICHELLE SEEKFORD: We do everything on the basis of informed consent, making sure the victim understands each step of the process – what they consent to versus what they don't want to consent to.

That's especially important for someone who's just gone through a traumatic incident.

SEEKFORD: They're in control. They're leading, they're steering the ship as far as what they want to do, what they don't want to do.

Seekford started a SANE program at the clinic in response to the need she saw in the community. She's certified herself, and on staff she has a registered nurse and three nurse practitioners who are trained and working towards certification.

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Randi B. Hagi
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The SANE room at Valley Urgent Care is designed to be more comfortable than an average exam room.

SEEKFORD: We've partnered with local law enforcement, and heard from both the collegiate and local law enforcement and Title IX folks with a lot of the colleges that there is a need for an additional resource here in our area.

Nurses don't have to have this training to conduct these forensic exams, but having a SANE on duty at all times is considered the "gold standard" by the International Association of Forensic Nurses. SANE services are available during all of Valley Urgent Care's open hours.

SEEKFORD: Sometimes the exams can take, you know, four to six hours, and so that nurse or that nurse practitioner is going to be one-on-one, direct patient care with that patient. … We offer clothes for our victims, if they have to turn their clothes over as part of the evidence … and we work closely with the Collins Center. They supply victims' advocates for victims of sexual assault, and so that's one of our first phone calls that we make.

They're also coordinating with the local hospital, Sentara RMH, for cases in which a patient wants to be treated at Valley Urgent Care, but may need additional medical services, such as a CT scan. The hospital also has their own SANE program, with three certified nurses and three others who have gone through the training.

TAMMY JOHNSON: All SANE patients, they get their medical care taken care of first, but the advantage with having nurses that are trained specifically as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, is that we also get specialized training in trauma-informed care, neurobiology of the brain, and evidence collection.

Tammy Johnson is the program coordinator there. She's hoping to expand their team so that a SANE could be on hand at all times.

JOHNSON: I can't guarantee 100% coverage – some months we do have 100%, other months we don't. Just because our nurses, most of them, this is a position in addition to the position they already have at the hospital. … I recruit constantly. … A lot of it is word of mouth from my other nurses as well.

She noted that, while it's best from a forensic standpoint for patients to come in as soon as possible after an assault, some evidence can be collected up to five days afterwards.

Other hospitals in the region that have SANEs on staff include Valley Health in Winchester and Augusta Health in Fishersville – both of which have helped Valley Urgent Care set up their SANE policies and procedures.

Tammy Kiser, who manages special project operations at Valley Urgent Care, said they want to be a regional resource.

TAMMY KISER: We've also reached out to law enforcement and to the Commonwealth Attorney's office in Page County and Harrisonburg/Rockingham, Augusta, area of Winchester. … to be available so that victims don't need to travel an hour or two in order to receive services.

For the clinic's hours and more information, visit valleyurgentcareva.com.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.