ROANOKE, Va. – A critical shortage of sexual assault nurse examiners happening across the country and here at home is forcing rape victims to travel far and wide for the help they need.
Heather Smith has worked as a forensic nurse at Carilion for five years.
"We don't focus on the law enforcement process, we just focus on empowering them with the information to make a decision for themselves," Smith said.
Her team of six works around the clock, treating about 650 patients every year. Half the patients they see are adults and half of those are sexual assault victims.
"You're afforded the opportunity to walk beside them on the worst day of their life. At the end of the day, they walk out and have the tools that they need to help themselves," Smith said.
She said the services they provide victims are crucial, but access to this kind of care is rare.
A 2019 study showed that of the 122 licensed hospitals in Virginia, only 16 provide sexual assault forensic exams. Of the commonwealth’s 94,000 registered nurses, only about 150 are credentialed forensic nurses. That means oftentimes, rape victims are forced to drive from hospital to hospital just to find someone who’s trained to examine them.
"I think that it's tragic and I think that we have an opportunity as a state and as well as a nation to respond to the need and provide victims and patients of sexual violence the resources that they need," smith said.
A bill awaiting the governor’s signature in Virginia would establish a forensic nurse training program and make sure every hospital has them on staff.
Smith said that would make a big difference not just in treating victims, but helping them move forward.
“I’ve had victims give me a hug and tell me thank you and have a smile on their face so it is the ability to empower patients,” Smith said.
Every Carilion facility has forensic nurse examiners on staff.
Click here to find hospitals with sexual assault nurse examiners.