Nurse gives hope to the hurting

ER Nurse Nicole Perkins has completed 160 sexual assault exams in the past seven years. It’s a number she doesn’t take lightly.

In the middle of a bustling emergency department at IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital is a small, sterile room recognized as a safe place for the most vulnerable patients.  The Center of Hope is a unit staffed around-the-clock with forensic nurse examiners. At the helm of that haven is Nicole Perkins.

Perkins joined IU Health Ball Memorial Hospital in 2003 and a year later joined the Emergency Department as a technician. It was in that role where she first witnessed the urgency in caring for victims of domestic violence and assault.

“I saw victims of assault come in and wait.  There weren’t people who were specially trained to do the exams,” said Perkins. She became an ER nurse in 2009 and became a forensic nurse examiner three years later, joining the Center of Hope. Since 2014 she has served as the Center’s shift coordinator, working with six forensic nurse examiners – all specially trained to care for patients who have experienced sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse, elder abuse, human trafficking, or trauma. Last year the Center of Hope reported 1,000 cases of neglect, assault, abuse, and violence to both adults and children. One of the highest numbers was adult physical assault followed by child neglect.

“My mom was a nurse and I always saw how she cared for people and how she was so selfless,” said Perkins. The decision to become a forensic nurse was a specialization and also fulfilled a need.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to educate communities about how to prevent sexual assault. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. One in three women and one in six men experience some sort of sexual contact violence in their lives. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. Twenty to 25 percent of college women and 15 percent of college men are victims of forced sex during their time in college. Every 98 seconds someone in the US is sexually assaulted.

When a patient seeks help in ER, they are escorted to the private exam room where Perkins or another forensic nurse performs a head to toe assessment. The process can take anywhere from three to six hours.

“I introduce myself and assure them they are in a safe place,” said Perkins. “We stabilize their medical problems and then tailor the exam to meet their needs.” That may mean giving them time to cry, to sleep, or process the trauma. Part of the exam includes collecting evidence – under the nails, in their hair, and on their skin. Special glasses and a flashlight illuminate substances on the body, and a blue dye can be used to highlight cuts and abrasions. All injuries are photographed, samples are sealed, and the victim’s clothes are bagged for evidence. All patients are given a fresh set of clothing provided by the Assistance League of Indianapolis. They are also educated about and if they choose, given medicine for sexually transmitted diseases and the morning after pill. Each patient receives an “Application for Benefits From Sex Crime Victim Service Fund,” provided by the Indiana Criminal Justice Institute, and additional information on community resources.  

Not all victims come through the ER. Some come from the rape crisis center and some come from law enforcement agencies. 

Of the 160 sexual assault exams she has conducted, Perkins has only appeared in court about three times. But in any given day Perkins’ work extends beyond the walls of the Emergency Department.

“I think one of the biggest improvements over the years has been with our community collaboration,” said Perkins. A large part of that involves communication with various police agencies including the local, state, city and on the Ball State campus. She works closely with the Delaware County Sexual Assault Response Team, Child Protection Team, and Human Trafficking Committee. Perkins has served on various panel discussions and professional presentations focusing on human trafficking, caring for sexual assault/abuse survivors, and law enforcement education.

“The most important thing is to see an impact on the patients,” said Perkins. “They come in tearful, upset nervous and I’m able to help guide them through the process and calm them down and then provide them with all the resources they need. We’re the patient advocates. I don’t have to determine if a crime happened. I’m just here to believe them and love on them. We collect evidence in the event a case goes to court.”

— By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
   Reach Banes via email