When I attended volunteer training at the Women’s Shelter in Corpus Christi, I intended to help out answering phones so the caseworkers would be free to work with clients in the evenings. I envisioned playing with or reading to the dozen or so kids in the living quarters so their moms could attend parenting class. Those are things that I do well.
There were two jobs that I didn’t think I’d like to do or be good at doing. One was accompanying clients to court and the other was accompanying clients through the emergency room after a sexual assault. The first required day time volunteer hours which I can’t do; the second required a level of detachment which I don’t have.
I don’t understand or appreciate the level of aloof compassion that’s required if you are a nurse or social worker. It seems to translate into a cool and uncaring attitude; in reality, it’s probably what enables them to function in traumatic, emotionally charged situations. Whatever it is, I don’t have that ability.
When the call for volunteers came out for sexual assault ER volunteers, I answered it. What I do have is an inability to say no. It’s gotten me into more trouble than I can say. But not always.
In Corpus Christi, all adult sexual assaults go to Doctor’s Regional Hospital; assaults on victims under 18 go to Driscoll. Both hospitals share a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), a registered nurse who has advanced education and clinical preparation in forensic examination of sexual assault victims. A sexual assault advocate is on call for a 6 to 12 hour shift and goes to Doctor’s Regional when told that a survivor has come in to the hospital. Our job is to help the victim and do whatever we can to ease the trauma of the situation.
In our 20 hours of training, we learned the legal process that assaults follow and saw movies about what exactly the SANE does. We role-played being the assault survivor and the volunteer. There were 10 of us in my training 4 years ago; 7 were interns working on their masters in counselling or criminal justice, one was an ad exec who like me probably couldn’t say no, and one was an elderly Franciscan nun. The one piece of advice the trainer gave us was that each assault is different and to “expect the unexpected.”
Over the past few years, I’ve come to value that last piece of advice. Survivors of sexual assault come in all types. Sexual violence occurs across the life span. Young children are victims of sexual assault as are the elderly. According to the TAASA (Texas Association Against Sexual Assault) website, the average age of victims over the age of 60 was 78.8 years. Although women are most often the victims (93%), assaults on men are more common than these statistics show since they are less likely to be reported.
Walking in to the ER after a call out, I never know what I will find. My shift used to be 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays, but I’ve changed the day to Saturdays since Bob’s nearly always working on Saturday and usually off on Sundays. Both days are usually busy, but this is something else I can’t anticipate. I keep my phone with me all the time but there are Saturdays when the hospital doesn’t call.
I like doing this volunteer job. I do it because they need me and because I’m good at it. That’s a surprise to me; it isn’t because I am a kind individual or because I’ve learned the gift of detachment. It’s because, in my job as a construction project manager, I’ve learned that you sometimes just have to fill in the cracks. That ability helps me when I go to the hospital after a sexual assault call out. Is it your job? Nope, but somebody has to do it.
In the past four years, I’ve learned how to be helpful.
- I’ve learned that when a daughter comes in to the ER after an assault, her mom is usually in the waiting room, often with the daughter’s small children and a husband who looks like he wants to explode. As the SA volunteer, I can choose to stay with the survivor and leave the family in the waiting room to wait. I’ve found that Mom needs to be with her daughter. If I can earn the trust of her little ones, which I usually can, I can watch them and Mom can do what moms do best and stay in the ER cubicle with her child.
- I know where to find the hot blankets. ER’s are freezing cold and a heated blanket is welcome to a survivor who is lying on a cold ER bed.
- I know how to listen quietly without giving advice. That’s hard for me because I’m always sure I know what you are supposed to do even if I haven’t made exactly stellar success in my life. AA has taught me that if you don’t know it from your own experience to keep your mouth shut. That’s good advice as an SA advocate.
- I’ve learned a Happy Meal makes the wait shorter for small children waiting for mom and g’mom.
- I know how to change the channel in the waiting room with ninja stealth so the reception lady doesn’t see me.
- I can adjust ER beds without causing spine damage.
- I know where they put the tissues, trash bags, and throw up bowls in the ER cubicles.
- I know where the ER hides sandwich meals, juice, jello, and eating utensils for patients waiting in emergency. Survivors can’t eat until the SANE is finished with her exam, but there’s often a wait afterwards for antibiotics and paperwork. By noon, a victim who’s been bounced from police to hospital for the past 8 to 10 hours is hungry and thirsty. The staff very kindly turns a blind eye while I’m rummaging.
- I know the secret combination for the ambulance entrance.
- I know it’s difficult to find a safe and quiet place for a homeless victim to spend the night after they’ve been assaulted. I’ve bullied the Women’s Shelter into taking homeless women survivors for the night so they didn’t have to sleep on a cot with 30 other people. For men who are victims-homeless or not, it’s more difficult. Good Sam Rescue Mission will work with you but at a price. I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to pay that price since no agency has spare cash lying around.
- The hospital locker assigned to SA survivors doesn’t usually have clothes for women who are over size 18 and virtually nothing for men. After an assault, survivors have to give up their clothing. All their clothing. I’ve found that Family Dollar has size 13 panties, cheap slippers, and XXL scrubs.
- I can bully the City Impound yard into giving a SA survivor their car back without having to pay towing or impound. It happens sometimes that a victim’s car was left in a tow-away zone. Having to pay $100+ to get your vehicle back is a breaking point for most people but after the night that a victim’s endured? It’s just too much.
- I can’t always help. In fact, usually I’m just the nice lady who makes sure they have the Women’s Shelter’s phone number and the SA counsellor’s name. I’ve had times when it was obvious I wasn’t wanted or needed. It’s a horrible time in anyone’s life and the presence of a total stranger isn’t appreciated.
My childish self will huff and mentally threaten to quit. The bottom line? I’m there for the victim. Not for my ego. Not for the hospital. Not for the Women’s Shelter. If I can help, great. If not, I’m there anyway. Maybe I’ll see a crack to fill.