Sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) program team

Women's Health, Your Health | 4 years ago

Seeking Medical Help After a Sexual Assault

Sexual assault survivors may be more injured than they realize. While it’s hard to know how to react after such a traumatic event, seeking out emergency medical help is critical to recovery. 

A sexual assault can leave the survivor feeling terrified, vulnerable and ashamed. Often struggling with paralyzing feelings of loss of control, many survivors feel as if everything in their world has been turned upside down – leaving them unsure of what to do next.“Sexual assault survivors need to know the attack was not their fault,” says Cheryl Dodds, MD, a psychiatrist at Atrium Health.

“There is a lot of stigma associated with this, and people are afraid they are going to be blamed for the attack.” She encourages people not to let their fear, guilt or shame stop them from getting the care they need.

The First Step Toward Healing: Seeking Help

After a sexual assault, survivors should go to the emergency department to receive care as soon as possible. Once there, they’re triaged and moved into a treatment room right away, and doctors and nurses, trained to care for sexual assault survivors, examine and treat them.

“The process that goes on in the emergency room is a forensic exam to collect physical evidence,” Dr. Dodds says. That can include taking photos of bruises or lacerations as well as evidence of sexual contact. A forensic exam can also help a legal case if the victim decides to press charges. The window for collecting the most useful forensic evidence is up to 72 hours.

Additionally, many medical services for sexual assault survivors are covered by special funding programs, such as the NC Crime Victims Compensation Fund.

While at the hospital, the survivor will also be cared for by a sexual assault nurse examiner (or a SANE nurse). Providing support, compassion and care, a SANE nurse remains by the patient’s side throughout their hospital stay.

After the forensic exam, a SANE nurse will provide the patient with a change of clothes and personal care items, like soap, shampoo, a toothbrush and toothpaste. A day or two after the patient leaves the hospital, their SANE nurse will call to check in.

Always the Survivor’s Choice, Always Protected

Collecting evidence following an attack does not mean that the survivor has to press charges or undergo a legal battle. Angie Alexander, RN, an emergency department SANE nurse from Carolinas Medical Center explains that the decision to undergo a rape kit (a sexual assault evidence collection kit) is completely up to the patient.

“A patient can refuse the kit or stop the collection process partway through, for any reason,” says Alexander. “That won’t stop the victim from receiving the medical care, including medication to prevent pregnancy or address possible STDs.”

Neither the hospital nor the police will release a sexual assault survivor’s identity to the media or the community. In fact, survivors can choose to send a rape kit to the police without a name attached to it and can reveal their identity only when (or if) they decide to press charges.

Dr. Dodds says that many sexual assault survivors who do not collect evidence when they can eventually regret it, especially if their attacker goes on to hurt someone else.

Seeking Mental Health Support

Another reason seeking medical care following a sexual assault is so important is because survivors also receive mental health resources. Specifically designed to address trauma, mental health services can help survivors avoid some of the long-term pitfalls that often come from experiencing a traumatic event, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse and even suicidal thoughts.

“Seeking help is part of healing in this process, and I have seen patients in my career that not only survive a sexual assault but thrive and help others in their recovery, and it’s really a beautiful thing,” Alexander says.

Signs a Sexual Assault Occurred

Many people fail to seek medical attention following a sexual assault and may not tell anyone about it at all. Signs that someone you love may have experienced a sexual assault or other traumatic event include the following:

  • Bruises, cuts or other physical trauma
  • An abrupt increase in use of alcohol or drugs
  • An abrupt onset of anxiety or panic attacks
  • Sudden withdrawal from people
  • Sudden inability to sleep at night
  • Fear of going out, perhaps even going to work
  • Fear of being alone or being alone with certain types of people

If someone you care about has shown any of the above signs, gently ask what is wrong and encourage them to seek medical care. Offer to go with them. Let them know that they have nothing to be ashamed of and that help is available for the physical, emotional and mental pain they are experiencing.