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“A victim has to start recovery right away”

A sexual assault medical kit is displayed at the Rapid City Regional Hospital in Rapid City, S.D., Dec. 11, 2012. In the event of the investigation, it is important for the victim of a sexual assault to save all possible evidence to include clothing, underwear and bed linen, to help identify a perpetrator. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kate Thornton-Maurer/Released)

A sexual assault medical kit is displayed at the Rapid City Regional Hospital in Rapid City, S.D., Dec. 11, 2012. In the event of the investigation, it is important for the victim of a sexual assault to save all possible evidence to include clothing, underwear and bed linen, to help identify a perpetrator. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kate Thornton-Maurer/Released)

Leah Walker, Rapid City Regional Hospital sexual assault nurse examiner, examines a sexual assault medical kit at the RCRH in Rapid City, S.D., Dec. 11, 2012. Walker is one of nine SANEs in the hospital that, once certified, can complete the entire process of a sexual assault procedure without a doctor present except for X-rays, CT scans and prescriptions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kate Thornton-Maurer/Released)

Leah Walker, Rapid City Regional Hospital sexual assault nurse examiner, examines a sexual assault medical kit at the RCRH in Rapid City, S.D., Dec. 11, 2012. Walker is one of nine SANEs in the hospital that, once certified, can complete the entire process of a sexual assault procedure without a doctor present except for X-rays, CT scans and prescriptions. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Kate Thornton-Maurer/Released)

ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. -- It's 2 a.m. on a stormy Saturday. While the bars downtown are closing for the night several blocks away, she still has hours of work to do before her shift ends.

Unexpectedly, a horrific, life-altering scenario has unfolded. Like clockwork, she relieves her duties in the triage to an incoming colleague so she can tend to a much more pressing situation - a special circumstance that has required the same type of attention 10 times this year.

Tonight, a local Airman has been brought in by a friend - an Airman who is probably having the worst day of her life.

"We have two scenarios that happen about 50 percent of the time," said Leah Walker, a certified sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) since 1998 at Rapid City Regional Hospital. "A lot of gals come in on their own. They confide in a girlfriend, who is usually the one to convince them to come in. The other victims will come in with the police department."

On a triage scale of one through five, victims of sexual assault are considered a level two patient. Walker explained level one patients as those who are brought in for issues like cardiac arrest, while level five patients are those who come in for sore throats.

"We consider sexual assaults a high priority," said Walker, a registered nurse since 1978. "We consider it a trauma, just like a car accident or any other serious trauma."

Once the victim is admitted at the front desk, they are guided into a private family room located within the triage department of the ER. A SANE will sit with the victim and try to obtain as much information as possible. The SANE passes the information along to the police department or to the 28th Security Forces Squadron, if they aren't already involved.

After Ellsworth's sexual assault response coordinator is notified, a victim advocate is sent to sit with the victim throughout the hospitalization process. If the victim doesn't wish to have an advocate, they will still wait outside of the room - just in case the victim changes their mind.

"After we talk in the family room, we'll take them into an exam room," Walker explained. "The SANEs do the entire procedure. We collect evidence and perform a pelvic exam. If they need a CAT-SCAN (Computed Axial Tomography) or X-rays, the doctor will then oversee us."

Walker continued to emphasize the importance for victims to preserve evidence that may still be on or in their body prior to coming in to the hospital - despite the emotional gravity of the situation. Changing clothes, brushing teeth, showering and even urinating can be detrimental to securing evidence.

Once evidence has been delicately collected, the SANE will dry and package the materials which for military cases are then sent to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.

Upon the victim's discharge from the hospital, a local agency will pay for the emergency
room visit and will reimburse the victim for any clothing that has been collected.

RCRH always accepts clothing donations such as socks, underwear and sweats ranging from size small to double extra large, to provide to victims.

"The majority of sweats we need are a size large," Walker stated. "The victims feel the most comfortable going into sweats - something warm and cozy."

Walker emphasized that victims of sexual assault need to begin the steps to recovery immediately - including making a report, whether restricted or unrestricted.

"Our hardest cases working with the military are the restricted cases," said Walker. "They're scared. But, you've got to start somewhere, don't just let this hang. A victim has to start recovering right away."

Kelly Dominguez, 28th Bomb Wing sexual assault response coordinator, explained that the relationship that Ellsworth has with the RCRH SANEs is a vital part of the support that victims of sexual assault need.

"They're very important," Dominguez said of the SANEs. "All victims who need medical attention or an examination have to go down to the ER. We don't currently have SANEs on base that can perform that examination. It's a really important relationship to have."

She added that there are people serving in similar roles in hospitals near military installations, which is critical if SANEs are not available in base medical facilities.

To donate clothing to RCRH, call (605) 719-1000. To report a sexual assault, contact the 24-hour SARC Hotline at (605) 385-7272.

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