The first question people ask when I tell them I will graduate with my nursing degree this year is, “What kind of nurse do you want to be?” Now that is the
million-dollar question. In my quest to answer that question, I recently started looking into nursing careers that would combine the fast-paced atmosphere of the Emergency Room with the ability to use what I learned in my Psychiatric Nursing course. Is there such a job? I think there may be…
In my search, I stumbled upon forensic nursing. What is a forensic nurse, you ask?
The International Association of Forensic Nurses defines a forensic nurse as “a nurse who provides specialized care for patients who are victims and/or perpetrators of trauma (both intentional and unintentional). Forensic Nurses are NURSES first and foremost. However, the specialized role of forensic nurses goes far beyond medical care; forensic nurses also have a specialized knowledge of the legal system and skills in injury identification, evaluation and documentation. After attending to a patient’s immediate medical needs, a forensic nurse often collects evidence, provides medical testimony in court, and consults with legal authorities.”
I hoped to gain insight on whether this career was what I had been looking for so I reached out to the District of Columbia Forensic Nurse Examiners and quickly got a response from their Clinical Nurse Manager, Erin Pollitt, MHA, BSN, RN, FNE-A, SANE-A. She graciously agreed to meet with me to share her knowledge.
Erin graduated from Villa Julie College (now Stevenson University) in 2007 and has been a nurse for the past 11 years. After earning her BSN, she started in the ER at Medstar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. At the time, Erin’s aunt had been working closely with the forensic nurses at Medstar Washington Hospital Center and mentioned it to Erin as a possible career. Erin saw it as a way to help people in their time of crisis, as well as use the therapeutic and clinical nursing skills she had learned in school and on the job. She took the forensic nurse examiner training and began practicing as a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) in 2011.
As an ER nurse, Erin is always juggling patients. In her role as a forensic nurse, she can devote all her time to the needs of one patient. When a patient has experienced a sexual abuse or domestic violence event and requests an exam, the on-call forensic nurse comes to the hospital. (Forensic nurses are available 24/7 since trauma is not what you call “scheduled”.) Erin will begin by saying that she is sorry that they have to meet under these circumstances and then will ask for a brief description of what happened. She then explains to the patient what she can offer them in way of the examination, but it is the patient who gets to decide what portions of the exam they will and will not permit. Even if the patient gives the OK to a specific exam component, they can change their mind at any time during the exam. “I just want to make sure they make an informed decision on the evidence collected,” Erin says. “There is often a sexual or domestic abuse advocate in the room as well and they also can make sure that we are addressing the things that are important to the patient and to support them further.”
The job of a forensic nurse is very patient-focused and Erin looks at her role as the person who will give the patient back their power of choice. The patient chooses the care they receive and are reminded that just because evidence is collected does not mean they have to press charges. “We keep evidence for a year and call the patient after three months and again at the year mark to ask if they still want us to hold it or would like it destroyed,” Erin says. I also asked Erin about something I had recently read about backlogs of untested rape kits in some areas of the country. Although she could not speak for other jurisdictions, she is proud to say that Washington, DC does not have any untested kits.
What advice does Erin have for a student who would like to pursue forensic nursing? She explains that to take the SANE class to practice as a forensic nurse, it is recommended to have at least one year in critical care or ED, jobs where you will hone your assessment skills. “It helps to get really good at detailed head-to-toe assessments,” she says.
She also adds that you must also have the compassion to work with people who have experienced trauma. “Obviously, anyone who I see has had a bad day. I remember there was one patient who was unsure she wanted to stay for the exam. After talking with her and dedicating myself to her that day, I guess she felt a lot better about it.” After the exam, the woman said that Erin had made her feel really comfortable and at ease. The woman continued to share that she wasn’t going to stay and have the exam done, but was glad she stayed and was glad Erin was her nurse. After Erin told me this story, she added, “This is why I do this.”
I hope you or someone you know never has to face this, but for anyone finding themselves a victim of physical or sexual abuse, know that there are hospitals that have forensic nurses on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In our area, these include:
Howard County General Hospital
Medstar Washington Hospital Center
Prince Georges Hospital Center
Shady Grove Adventist Hospital
For a full list of all hospitals and clinics with SANE certified forensic nurses, please visit The International Association of Forensic Nurses.