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Denise Atkinson, BSN, RN, SANE-A, CMI-III

What is your current position?  How did you come to be in this position?

I am currently contracted by Hodac, Inc. as the Forensic Nurse Coordinator for Houston County and Peach County. In 1999, I was asked by the Chief Assistant District Attorney to establish a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program for Houston County.

Approximately ten years later, we started a program in neighboring Peach County. I am also the President of the Georgia Chapter of the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN). Soon after establishing our SANE program, we realized that we needed a venue for forensic nurses of Georgia to come together to learn from one another. I have most recently contracted with Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault (GNESA) to train nurses throughout the state on becoming a SANE.

What are your roles and responsibilities?

As the coordinator, I was initially responsible for establishing the program and I am now responsible for maintaining the program. I hire and educate nurses, order and maintain equipment. I prepare and provide orientation and perform evaluation of personnel in the SANE program. I also take call and respond to the hospital to care for sexual assault patients and testify in court when needed.

I am a member of the Sexual Assault Response Team in both counties, working with other agencies to develop county wide protocols for the care of sexual assault victims.

As the President of the Georgia Chapter of IAFN, I have the opportunity to meet other SANEs from all over the country. I teach different forensic classes which include the Basic SANE training, SANE-A review classes for those who are seeking their certification and classes on testifying as an expert.

What is the most fulfilling aspect of your job?

The most fulfilling aspect of my job is when I am called to the hospital to care for a sexual assault patient. Knowing that the patient does not have to wait in an emergency department waiting room with all the other patients and visitors until it is their turn to be seen but instead has a nurse who is trained in the assessment for injury and the collection of evidence and who will devote the time needed to them is very important to me. The care of a sexual assault patient and the collection of evidence should never be rushed but without nurses who are there specifically for these patients, the sexual assault patient becomes just one more patient being cared for by a nurse who has multiple patients.

What are the challenges of your current position?

The biggest challenge of my current position is that I don’t have the time to accomplish all I would like to achieve. Most sexual assault nurse examiners, including myself, do this on a part time bases. We maintain a full time job while trying to be available during our off time. 

There are also a very limited number of SANEs in the state; so often if a SANE is not available the patient has to be cared for by the emergency department staff.

 What influenced you to go into nursing?  What influenced you to choose this specialty?

I was a Paramedic prior to becoming a nurse so it seemed just the natural next step. Because I was comfortable as a Paramedic with emergency conditions, I became an Emergency Department nurse. It seemed that any time that a sexual assault patient came in, I was the one who would take care of them. When I was approached about becoming a SANE, there was no hesitation on my part. I wanted the opportunity to learn how to do what I had been doing for years…the correct way. Before my training, the Emergency Department Physician would have to do part of the exam but with my SANE training I am able to do the entire exam.

What degrees or certificates would you recommend a nursing student interested in your specialty?

You have to take the 80 hour SANE training with 40 hours classroom and 40 hours clinical. This comes after you are a Registered Nurse.  Depending on where you would be working as a SANE, you need strong clinical and assessment skills because you may be the most knowledgeable person there, including the Physician on treating a sexual assault patient. Having a background in emergency nursing or women’s health is a plus but if you do not have experience in those areas, don’t let stop you from entering the forensic field. Once you do have a few years experience as a SANE, you will want to sit for the SANE certification exam.  Because you will be going to court, you will want to show that you are an “expert” in the forensic field.