Health

Hardin Memorial Hospital in Elizabethtown treated 104 sexual assault patients this year. That’s an increase of 108 percent compared to 2017, and officials say that was likely due to increased awareness of assault and harassment over the past year, as the #metoo movement unfolded across the country.

“I don’t necessarily think that more rape is occurring because of the numbers,” said Sarah Tovar, who who runs the sexual assault examination program at Hardin Memorial. “Sexual assault is so underreported — some statistics say 70 percent [go] underreported. So when we see our numbers go up, I feel like the reporting is going up. And I feel like that is attributed to the education of the community and the awareness.”

Tovar runs the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program at Hardin, where nurses are specially trained to conduct sexual assault exams when a patient arrives in the emergency room.

“The primary nurses here and the physician will usually not interview the patient. And the reason for that is so that [the patient’s] not questioned over and over and over and re-traumatized,” Tovar said. “They wait for that special assault nurse examiner and law enforcement and we work together to try to do one interview for their well-being.”

The increased awareness of sexual assault isn’t limited to Hardin County. New research shows searches for terms including “sexual harassment” and “sexual assault” were 86 percent higher than expected in the eight months following actress Alyssa Milano’s #metoo tweet in October 2017 when she urged sexual assault survivors to share stories on social media.

Researchers then drilled down into that data for more specific searches with the terms “reporting,” or “training,” according to Alicia Nobles, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California San Diego.

“Searches that were specific to reporting were 30% higher than expected,” Nobles said. “It [the research] demonstrates that grassroots events on social media have tremendous power to respond to large-scale public health crisis.”

Nobles said she isn’t surprised in the uptick of sexual assault patients at Hardin Memorial — the Google research results show that more people were looking for resources on where to report and get help with a sexual assault or harassment.

“One thing that could easily be done is making sure that when someone is looking for help online, that they’re linked to effective evidence-based resources,” Nobles said. “And the same could be said for people who are looking for information about prevention, so perhaps investing and better understanding what the public needs and developing and disseminating these resources appropriately online is needed.”

In Elizabethtown, Hardin Memorial recently got $221,000 in grants to continue the SANE program in 2019, and to hire a nurse to follow up with sexual assault patients after they leave the emergency room.

Sarah Tovar said that follow-up care is rare in SANE programs because there’s a lack of funding for it. But there are some crucial services that might make a big difference — like reminding patients to keep taking medication that will prevent them from contracting HIV in case their assailant transferred the virus.

“[It’s] to make sure that they have a safe place that they’re going home to, and to see that they’re following up with their mental health care after this [initial exam],” Tovar said. “And a kind of a big thing that I don’t know that anyone is doing: we’ll do follow-up for photos because sometimes on day one of the assault specific injuries and bruising will not show up. Sometimes it takes a day or two before some of it shows up.”

The program already had 12 nurses who are on-call to do exams and six more are in training. Tovar says the team also does a lot of social media outreach to spread awareness about the help at Hardin Memorial Hospital.

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.