The provincial co-ordinator of a program providing specialized care for survivors of sexual violence says its expansion is “momentous.”

On Friday, the Department of Health and Wellness announced the province’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program (SANE) is expanding to Shelburne, Cumberland, and Colchester counties.

As of Feb. 1, SANE services have been available at Roseway Hospital in Shelburne and at Colchester Regional Health Centre in Truro.

Effective Feb. 8, Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre in Amherst will also offer SANE services.

“As of Monday when Cumberland goes live, we will have coverage to every regional hospital in the province and many other health care sites in between, so we’ll have 18 sites operational,” Susan Wilson, provincial SANE coordinator with Nova Scotia Health, said in an interview.

“That fifth and final program really filled in that gap in the Cumberland, Colchester, Eastern Shore area. That’s the momentous piece. That we’re finally officially in my opinion, provincial.”

Susan Wilson, provincial SANE coordinator with Nova Scotia Health. Photo: Submitted

Wilson said while some people believe there should be a SANE in every hospital, it isn’t a reasonable or feasible option due to our population.

“If we had a SANE-based nurse in every hospital, they may not ever see a patient and put those skills to work,” she said. “So their ability to gain and maintain that competency and to testify in court to that level is compromised. We do testify as expert witnesses very often.” 

The SANE program provides province-wide, specialized, 24/7 on-call care and support for people who’ve experienced a recent sexual assault. Wilson said this latest expansion means Nova Scotians living in those areas will now have better access to the specialized care offered by registered nurses with advanced training.

“They’ve always had access to that health care through any health care centre as well as to the forensic exam,” Wilson explained. “But they (exams) take quite a bit of time and often require a dedicated health care practitioner, often a physician…which often resulted in extensive delays for the patient.”

In addition, SANE nurses can often take a patient outside the emergency department and provide care in a more discrete area.

“We’re not rushed so it takes as long as it takes, as long as that individual needs we’re there for that length of time,” Wilson said.

In addition to the medical exam and medical treatment if required, patients can choose whether forensic evidence is handed over to police immediately, or in the future. There’s a SANE specific option that allows people to have their evidence held for six months — or longer, in specific cases — while the person decides what they want to do.

“That’s a really empowering option…To come in for help seeking health care after an immediate sexual assault and then have to get your head around going the criminal justice route is for many, most, a very foreign and very scary thing to do,” Wilson said.

“It is really a complete 180 from where that individual needs to be…This gives them a little bit of time to just digest that and make a decision about what’s right for them with no regrets so they can decide if they want to proceed or not, and they’ve collected some good viable evidence upfront.”

There are about 100 SANE-trained nurses working in five teams of 12 or more. They provide 24/7 coverage and are mobile, responding to calls within their zones. The maximum time for a SANE-trained nurse to arrive onsite in an urban area like Halifax/Dartmouth is 60 minutes. In rural areas, it’s a 90-minute window.

The SANE program is also expanding to the Eastern Shore in the spring. Wilson said the same team responding to Cumberland-Colchester will cover the Eastern Shore.

“Our goal really is to be within 90 minutes of every community across the province, and we’re nearly there,” Wilson said. “We’re filling in those gaps and there may be some places that we also add some additional care.”

For more information:

— Visit the provincial program’s designated website for more information and locations

— Anyone wishing to access SANE support can call the nearest location 24 hours a day, seven days a week or can go to the closest emergency department

— If on-site service is not available at a hospital, people who want to will be transferred to a hospital that has on-call SANE response

— Health care teams at any hospital can complete the medical and forensic exam if the patient chooses not to be transferred to more specialized care

— 24/7 phone support is available through all SANE teams, providing information, resources and options following a recent sexual assault

— Other services available to people who have experienced sexual violence include free legal advice, trauma therapy and dedicated sexual violence prosecutors

— The provincial government is investing about $1.7 million this year on SANE


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Yvette d'Entremont

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and health issues. Twitter @ydentremont

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