SANE Nurses: Where Nursing and Justice Intersect

It’s a stressful job, but it’s also an important one.  Nurses in a program called SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) specialize in dealing with rape victims.  Nurses such as Barbra Chikowore know how to put these patients at ease, from introducing herself by her first name to taking a seat on the floor if she thinks that will help them relax.

She explains that she’s there to do an exam, asks about their medical history and proceeds to take swabs and photographs, which go into a secured evidence box. She also dispenses medication and information on sexually transmitted diseases and mental health resources.

Chikowore, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, sees victims ages 18 and older in the Districts SANE Program. Based in Washington Hospital Center, the program has 15 on-call nurses who work in shifts that provide around-the-clock coverage so patients are seen immediately, anytime, and by a single nurse from the start of their visit to the end.

The medical samples they collect are turned over to police. The job requires nursing skills coupled with the ability to gain a person’s trust soon after it has been shattered by violence.

People who know Chikowore say she is well-suited for the job, describing her as matter-of-fact and more concerned with others than with herself.

Last year, when work-related stress had her contemplating a break from SANE, she never said a word during her regular telephone conversations with her mother, a nurse in Tennessee. Instead, she kept quiet as some of her own hair fell out and found therapeutic company in her dog Maita, a ShiTzu-Bichon Frise mix.

“I don’t like to tell people when I’m stressed, or don’t show it because I don’t like to burden others with my ‘stuff,’” said Chikowore, 27, who has a trace of an African lilt in her voice. “I have a pretty OK life, and there are a lot of people with much bigger problems.”

Her mother, Tsitsi Chikowore, was a local magistrate in their native Zimbabwe. Barbra, the second of three children, grew up hearing stories about her mother’s work in the courtroom. She’s not surprised by her daughter’s choice to pursue a kind of nursing that intersects with the justice system. Of her daughter’s tendency to put others first, Tsitsi Chikowore said: “She has a heart for people.”

According to 2010 statistics D.C. police reported to the FBI, rapes increased by nearly 25 percent last year in the District. That has meant putting a renewed focus on increasing effectiveness and communication among programs that serve assault victims, said DC SANE Medical Director Heather DeVore.

In the hospital, Chikowore is often the first person to see the physical impact of a violent sexual assault. She knows it is a delicate perch fraught with responsibility.

“I am seeing people in their worst possible time,” Chikowore says, “but I’m there to help. I’m there to make it better. I enjoy that.”

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