Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program continues to provide treatment and solace in Mt. Pleasant

In the aftermath of a sexual assault, needing to drive an hour or longer to get proper medical care could easily be the deciding factor for not getting that care at all.

But for more than two years, that was the choice faced by women and men in and around Mt. Pleasant. After reporting an assault, victims were directed to hospitals in Midland, Grayling or Lansing – the nearest facilities that offered a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program.

The burden placed on victims was simply too much, says Central Michigan University chief of police Larry Klaus – and he knew it had to change.

“I had been in law enforcement at that time over 30 years and I just felt very strongly that we can do better for the survivors of these traumatic events,” he says.

The SANE program, brought back to Mt. Pleasant in 2016, continues to provide local, critical medical care and support for victims of sexual assault.

Treatment gap

Isabella County’s previous SANE program had ended in 2013 due to a loss in grant funding. But in 2016, with the support of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, the program was relaunched at McLaren Central Michigan in Mt. Pleasant.

“It was my personal belief that as a community we could reestablish this service at one of our local hospitals, not only for our students but for the entire community so people didn’t have to travel such distances to get this procedure done,” Klaus says. “All the law enforcement throughout the region wanted to see this restored. It’s a good partnership.”

Beth Ann Nesbitt works at a booth to educate the community about the SANE program during the Donut 5K run/walk, which is held during National Crime Victims Awareness Week and put on by the prosecuting attorney's office.Implemented by registered nurses specifically trained as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, the SANE program provides forensic medical care, emergency contraception, trauma response, sexually transmitted infection testing and treatment, and referrals to ensure patients get the follow-up support they need, such as mental health care. A trained advocate also provides on-site support, says Beth Ann Nesbitt, a nurse at McLaren and the hospital’s SANE program coordinator.

“The advocate is like the touchstone for the patient. Instead of calling this and that person, their advocate helps them navigate through the health care system as far as the services that they may need,” she says.

A change of clothing is provided for patients, as law enforcement may need to collect the victim’s clothes.

“That gives them a little more comfort than being in that hospital gown,” explains Tracy Chappel, emergency department manager at McLaren.

It’s all part of making the patient feel as comfortable as possible given the circumstances.

“We really want them to come in, and build that trust with them because they have been through such a traumatic experience,” she says.

Paintings were donated by Mercantile Bank and hung in the SANE exam room. Birch tress symbolize healing, which is why these particular pieces of art were chosen.

Removing a barrier

With sexual violence involving physical contact affecting more than 1 in 3 women and nearly 1 in 4 men at some point in their lives, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, a SANE program nearby removes a major hurdle for local residents who may need the services – including the many college students who call Isabella County home for most of the year.

“It took away a barrier,” Klaus says. “There were occasions here on our campus where we would engage the facility in Midland and … many individuals just decided not to proceed. Providing that service here locally is less traumatic for our survivor victims.”

Available for patients 12 and older, the SANE program has nurses on call 24/7 – all volunteers, Chappel says.

“The nurses that are on-call for our SANE program have a passion for wanting to help these patients. They volunteer to go through the training and be on call,” she says. “It’s not something required of them; they want to make a difference for these women, these men, so they volunteer to do that in addition to their normal duties.”

The program treats both women and men, Chappel emphasizes.

“This does not just happen to women, it happens to men as well,” she adds. “We’re caring for not just the women but also the men.”

Bags were donated by the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe that contain clothing for survivors who come through the hospital for an exam.

Strong partnership

While the SANE program is now funded by McLaren, bringing it back to Mt. Pleasant wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, Nesbitt says.

“The tribe has been very generous,” she says. “They were able to help us with the funds to get the education and some of the specialized equipment – some of those things are extremely expensive. They also care about this as something they want to provide to the community.”

SANE services are provided at no cost to the patient. “Money is the last thing we worry about,” Nesbitt says.

Being part of the program is a point of pride for those involved in it, especially when they see the impact it has firsthand.

“They take pride in what we do. They are very strong advocates for these patients, and this is very emotionally stressful work,” Chappel points out. “I’m very proud of the team that has come together and what they want to do for these patients.”

Survivors of sexual assault should know they aren’t alone, she adds, and that the resources available through SANE will address the patient’s physical as well as mental needs.

“Not only did this traumatic event happen with their body but it’s also their mind. You have to heal the whole body,” she says.

Partnering with the SANE program is part of the CMU police department’s focus on survivor-focused, trauma-informed response, Klaus notes.

“Part of that interaction is trying to help connect our survivors with resources for the recovery. This is a traumatic event in people’s lives and we want to help facilitate getting people to the resources they need,” he says. “It’s very traumatic, especially for our students. We want to try to help them back on their path to wellness.”

Having this resource close to home makes it easier for survivors to take that first step in getting the support they need.

“Hopefully they never have to use it, but it’s there if they do,” he says.

For more information on the SANE program at McLaren Hospital, call the hospital at 989-772-6700.