Salt Lake Sexual Assault Nurses 

Putting victims first

click to enlarge Brenda Puchalski - RACHEL PIPER
  • Rachel Piper
  • Brenda Puchalski

Brenda Puchalski has been a Salt Lake Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SL SANE, SLSANE.org) for four years. The nonprofit group of about 20 nurses performs forensic work on patients who have been sexually assaulted, at no cost to the victim. Though the group is often contacted by hospitals or law enforcement, individuals who have been sexually assaulted can contact SL SANE directly to get medical care and referrals without being required to deal with police, by calling 801-488-3400 to reach the nurses team 24/7 or 801-467-7273 to reach the Rape Recovery Center.

How did SL SANE come about?

When someone gets assaulted and goes to the hospital, they weren’t getting very good care. People have these notions about what rape is, so people would treat the victim as though they were the perpetrator. And doing the collection takes about four hours, and they really didn’t have the staff to do that. So Dianne Fuller, she’s the lady who started the team here, put together a team to offer to hospitals so they would have a specialized team coming in to do the collection, take care of the patient and give them community referrals. We go to all of the hospitals in Salt Lake.

What does SL SANE do?

I want people to know that we’re out there, and we’re here to help them. If they don’t want to talk to police, that doesn’t mean they can’t come in and get care. I always encourage people to come in just to get emergency medication, referrals, therapy. You may not know how you feel, or what you want to do about it, but there is a window of opportunity to collect forensics. At a minimum, before you decide what you want to do, get it collected, in case. You’re not required to talk to law enforcement, but there is a group of people you can talk to, who want to make sure you’re OK. Rape Recovery will come in and fill out the paperwork and send it to the hospital. They try to find the victim a place to stay if they don’t have a place to stay and give them clothes if we have to take their clothes. We try to put the least amount of stress on the patient as possible.

Someone has to take possession of the forensic collection, but all they have to do to give it to the police is a name and a birth date. That’s just so we can have their box taken and held, in case they decide they want to go forward. They don’t have to. They’re not required to talk to police.

And there are patients who don’t want a collection, don’t want anything done, and we will still give them care. We can give them emergency contraception; we can give them medication for the STIs that you can get rid of, like chlamydia and gonorrhea. It’s always up to the patient. When we go into the room, their control has been taken away from them. We want to give them back control.

Why might someone who’s been assaulted be afraid to go to the police?

A lot of people don’t like to talk to law enforcement. Law enforcement are good people, but they deal with bad people, and sometime they have a hard time crossing over. So, I think victims sometimes feel threatened by that. Or they live a lifestyle that is not coherent with law enforcement. Sometimes, people can’t wrap their head around the situation, or they’re not ready to deal with police.

We do a lot of education with the police department, and I have to give them credit—they’ve gotten a lot better as far as victim care. For the most part, the detectives who do sexual violence are very gentle, very careful. They also have victim advocates who work with them, and try to help the victim get through the whole process.

As a sexual-assault nurse, what trends have you seen in your patients?

When it comes to the younger age group, it’s often a lack of education. And you know how that is with sex education in Utah—we don’t get it. While I’m doing the exam, and they’ll start telling me the story, to me, it’s like, “Red flag No. 1. Red flag No. 2. Red flag No. 3.” And they miss it. We’re basically sending them out there with no education on how to avoid a situation. Over 90 percent of victims in the state of Utah know their attackers. It’s not the bogeyman. Less than 1 percent of sexual assault is the guy jumping out from behind the bushes and grabbing you. It’s mostly someone that you know, or that has befriended you, or that you trust.

We see men, too. We don’t see just women. We see people who come from the prison. We understand the situation. We don’t judge people for who they are or what kind of life they live. When it comes to a prostitute, they know what rape is. They know what their job is, and they know what rape is. They know the difference.

It’s important to try to understand the victims, and it helps them through the process. It also helps me find out how I need to educate them—whether they’ve been assaulted before, whether this was drug-facilitated, whether this was a boyfriend. It’s important to dig, because the help they need is big.

What contributes to Utah’s high rates of rape and sexual assault?

The religion in this state—I don’t blame it, but I don’t think it helps. Women aren’t taught to be a powerhouse. I think that the religion itself has nothing to do with it. But with religion, where men are put and women are put is very different. And we’re also not taught to find the bad in people. You don’t raise your children like, “OK, you just met so-and-so, now tell me everything bad about them.” You teach them, “Say goodbye, say hello, give them a hug.”

I hear women come in and they tell me why they did something, and I say, “You should be able to walk down the street naked and not get raped. Just because you went to a bar and had a drink and someone put something in your drink does not mean you were asking for it. Just because you got drunk at a party with people you trusted and then got raped doesn’t mean you were asking for it.”

I’ve been asked, “Do you think this really happened? Do you think she was really raped?” And I’m going, “Why wouldn’t I think that?” Most people don’t come into a hospital, sit through a vaginal exam, getting pictures taken of their body, of their vagina, to do it for fun. They’ve actually found, on the national average, that less than 3 percent of the people who report being sexually assaulted recant it. That’s not a lot.

As a nurse, when someone comes in and says, “I’m having trouble breathing,” do I go, “Really? Are you sure about that? I don’t believe you.” It takes enough courage to come in and get the exam. I have a hard time believing people do that for fun, or that they’re mad at someone so they’re going to come in and get a forensic exam done.

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