'Everything we do is up to them': How Salem Health helps sexual assault survivors

looking through a wet windshield at highway traffic

When her boyfriend left their cabin, Amy* grabbed her purse and her old dog and sped away — even though he’d broken the windshield wipers off her car. She had a dozen injuries from rape and domestic abuse. 

She didn’t feel safe asking for help in their little town because everyone knew her boyfriend — even the police. So she drove and drove, not caring about the rain. She landed in Salem Hospital’s emergency department, literally in the arms of the on-call sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE). 

While Amy’s dog slept in the car outside, Jennifer did the most important thing her patient needed: She gave her back control.

The biggest message we give victims is that everything we do is up to them,” said Diane Branson, RN, SANE program leader. “We explain all their options, but every decision is theirs.”  

Everything was up to Amy now: how much of the exam she felt comfortable doing, whether to press charges, what she wanted to share about the rape, even if she needed pregnancy counseling. She got names of clinics, support groups and housing help. Everything was confidential, including the rape kit.

For the first time in a long time, I felt safe and that people believed me,” Amy said. “I love all your [Salem Health ED] nurses.”

Amy was surprised she had total control over her situation.  

I didn’t even have to report it if I didn’t want to,” she added. “But I now have a rape kit that nobody but me has access to. I decide to activate it when I want. They pretty much saved my life — even my dog!” 

This empowerment gave Amy the courage she needed to begin healing. She knows it will take time to recover emotionally and for her case to work its way through the legal system — but now she can imagine a future when she’s no longer defined by her abuse.

Amy and her dog
Amy* and her beloved dog

Meeting a growing need

Salem Hospital heard about 145 stories like Amy’s last year. The figure spiked in 2018, according to Branson. 

“We had four patients in just the last three days,” she sighed.

Salem Health has 12 specially trained SANEs sharing 24-hour call. This specialty is in addition to their regular nursing duties. 

Support from these nurses can be as subtle as simply leaving a business card on the counter in the bathroom, Branson said, especially if the person is a suspected sex trafficking victim.   

For patients who are willing, the hospital can offer many on-site services and provide referrals for others.

“Victims can get a two-hour exam, plus five counseling sessions — and a safe place to stay immediately, along with other services,” she added. “We can offer this level of compassionate care and expertise, thanks to a special fund through the Oregon Department of Justice and our connections to other care and service providers.” 

Branson offers this advice:

What to do if you're sexually assaulted

  • Remember, this is not your fault! You didn’t consent to this.
  • Find a safe place. Leave the area of the assault if possible.
  • Consider reaching out to a close friend to be with you.
  • Call your local sexual assault hotline.
    • Marion County — Center for Hope and Safety at 503-399-7722 (or 866-399-7722 toll free).
    • Polk County — Sable house at 503-623-4033.
    • National Sexual Assault Hot Line — 800-856-4673 (HOPE) to connect to local resources. 

If you go to the hospital

  • You are in control of what happens when you arrive in the emergency department.
  • You are not required to report the assault to law enforcement to get medical care. If you are under 18 or disabled, however, it’s mandatory to report the crime, although it remains confidential.
  • You may have a medical forensic exam, known as a “rape kit,” completed. A specially trained nurse will do a head-to-toe exam looking for injuries and collecting potential evidence.
  • You may have evidence collected anonymously, or to report your crime. If you remain anonymous, you receive a number for your kit — only YOU have that number. The kit will be stored for 60 years. If you decide to report the assault, you can contact law enforcement with that number to begin an investigation.
  • The hospital can provide emergency contraception and medication to prevent STDs.
  • If your assault was in Oregon, you may ask to bill the exam to a special fund that pays the cost of the exam, pregnancy test, emergency contraception, medications to prevent STDs and five counseling sessions.
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Diane Branson
Branson loves to share the benefits of Salem Health’s SANE program with community groups; contact her to invite her to an event, or to talk to your group:
Diane Branson, RN CEN OR-SANE-A
SANE coordinator/Emergency Department

Want to help? Make a tax-deductible donation to the Oregon SAVE Fund
 to help cover the costs of rape kits and care for sexual assault survivors.

* Name has been changed to protect privacy.