SAFE Nurses: More than just evidence collectors

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Tracy O'Brien and Emily Huggins are with the forensic program at WellSpan York Hospital, and are highly trained in caring for victims of crime.

"When I started working with this program, it was in the early 2000s and we were seeing less, probably about 100-150 a year," Huggins said. "Now the program has grown. We are seeing 5-600 patients a year."

Many people may not even know their position exists, however, it is clear, it takes a special kind of person to want to work surrounded by this type of trauma.

"It's part of what makes us a good fit for this job, it's part of why we are good nurses," Huggins added.

Tracy and Emily along with the rest of the sexual assault forensic examiner nursing team -- or SAFE nurses -- have the obligation to collect evidence.

Remaining objective is key in the event that they have to testify in court, however, their main goal is to care for the patients that come in to see them.

"We are not here to judge the patient, we are here to objectively collect the information about what happened," O'Brien said.

Upon seeing a SAFE nurse, patients have a couple of options. They can choose to involve law enforcement, report anonymously or just undergo a medical examination without reporting the crime.

"Coming in for medical does not mean you have to engage with law enforcement, it doesn't mean you have to do anything else," Huggins said. "We want the person who is coming in to feel like they have choices and that they're regaining some of the control that they may have lost as a result of the assault."

Now despite their requirement to remain objective, SAFE nurses are still human, and every now and then, it is almost impossible not to take their work home.

"Hearing everything they experienced, what they were feeling when it happened, it is hard sometimes to not let that have an impact on us," O'Brien said.

Huggins added, "That's the kind of part where you go, whew, I'm gonna think about that one for a few days."

It is obviously an extremely difficult job, collecting evidence using a multitude of tools, after a person was abused or assaulted. The women though, say it is not a thankless job.

A victim seeing a SAFE nurse may be at their most vulnerable. So, these nurses become so much more than just evidence collectors, they become a provider of confidence and empowerment.

"I believe my patients," Huggins concluded. "Believe what they have to say, because that's half the battle sometimes."

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