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St. Louis Hospital Creates Safe, Dedicated Space for Sexual Assault Survivors
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St. Louis Hospital Creates Safe, Dedicated Space for Sexual Assault Survivors

In 2020, medical staff at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital treated 92 patients who came to the emergency department after being sexually assaulted. Since September, those individuals are being cared for in a dedicated space that allows for privacy, dignity, comfort and care.

“The emergency department nurses and staff worked with our architects to design the elements of the space,” says Kelly Baumer, vice president of clinical services. “The comfortable sitting space and shower being connected and located next to the exam space has been very helpful so that the patient does not have to leave the area.”

At the hospital, Brittany Ferguson is a specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (shortened to the acronym “SANE” by the Elkridge, Maryland-based International Association of Forensic Nurses). Ferguson knew what a difference the new space would make. “Previously, treatment would take place in a sterile exam room,” she says. “These rooms made victims feel anxious, scared and secluded. Presenting to an emergency department after a sexual assault is a traumatic experience.

“We wanted to limit the amount of trauma to the survivor and offer a space for comfort, healing and, most importantly, safety. We wanted a room that relaxed the victim and made them feel comfortable speaking up and being heard about a distressing, life-altering experience.”

At the hospital, Ferguson and her colleague Kathryn Harvath lead a team of SANEs who are trained to assess injuries, offer appropriate medications and collect DNA evidence.

The dedicated space is used to treat survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, strangulation and human trafficking, regardless of gender identity. Upon arrival at the emergency department, these individuals are escorted to the space where a SANE initiates care while an advocate from the YWCA’s Sexual Assault Response Team remains at the patient’s side. Social workers and officers from St. Louis’ Metropolitan Police Department Sex Crimes Unit meet with the patient in the space’s attached sitting room, eliminating the need for the patient to be seen in multiple locations.

“If police are not with the victim, we can call detectives to conduct a collaborative interview,” Ferguson says. “By working an interview together, we eliminate the need for the patient to tell their story multiple times, which may cause re-traumatization, removes the need for them to make numerous appointments with the police department and provides a clear, concise story.”

“The room is a ‘soft’ room, which means that it’s a space that is comfortable and inviting, in contrast to a medical exam room, which is stark and sterile,” Harvath says. “Having a soft room is a trauma-informed approach, which takes into consideration the neurobiological response to trauma.”

Providing a safe and comforting space is just part of the overall approach to treating survivors of sexual violence at SLUH. “There is a lot of stigma and self-blame related to our culture on how we view sexual assault victims,” Ferguson says. “We aim to eliminate self-blame and misconceptions and provide victims empowerment.”

SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital, 1201 S. Grand Blvd., St. Louis, 314-257-8000, ssmhealth.com

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Connie, a native of St. Charles and graduate of the MU School of Journalism, is a freelance writer and editor who contributes to print and online publications for clients throughout the region. She enjoys travel, hiking, kayaking and drinking good coffee

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