Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners there to support, treat patients in traumatic times

Rachel McDonnell and Casey Tschuemperlin are both Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin. Photographed at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin on Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANEs, are specialized nurses who are trained to be there for some of the most vulnerable patients and help get them through what is always a shocking and traumatic experience.

Rachel McDonnell and Casey Tschuemperlin are two of the SANEs at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin. McDonnell became a SANE in 2019 and is the longest tenured SANE at Advocate Sherman Hospital. Tschuemperlin became SANE certified in 2022 and has since taken over as the lead SANE nurse at Sherman.

Casey Tschuemperlin is the lead Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin. She leads five SANE nurses. Photographed at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin on Wednesday, March 20, 2024

SANEs undergo an average of 18 months of specialized training on how to provide the best possible care for victims of sexual assault or abuse, including a 40-hour didactic program, forensic photography training and weeks of practicum with live models.

Beginning in 2023, Illinois law required every hospital to have a trained SANE staffed at all times. If there is not a SANE on duty, at least one must be on-call and able to arrive within 90 minutes of a victim being admitted. There are five SANE nurses at Sherman, with four more going through training.

When victims of assault come into the hospital, a doctor will perform a medical exam to make sure no treatment is necessary before the nurses take over. SANE nurses work one-on-one with their patients and administer exams using sexual assault kits, which can take four to eight hours to complete.

Rachel McDonnell is the longest tenured Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin. She became a SANE in April of 2019. Photographed at Advocate Sherman Hospital in Elgin on Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Sexual assault kits, known commonly as rape kits, include blood samples and fingernail, vaginal and anal swabs, which then go to the police for testing. SANE nurses then ask very detailed questions and take photos to compile a report.

The kits are provided at no cost to the victim and are completely voluntary for patients. SANE nurses only administer the tests and provide the amount of care the victims are comfortable with.

McDonnell lives in McHenry County with her husband, Shawn, and their sons Ian, 14, and Finley, 12. She has been working as a nurse at Advocate Sherman for 16 years. Her first seven years were spent in the ER. She began working toward her SANE certification in 2018.

“These people are coming in and they’re sharing with me, a complete stranger, something that has happened to them that is just a horrible, awful experience.”

—  Rachel McDonnell, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, Sherman Advocate Hospital

McDonnell is the first nurse in her family and said she was inspired by a family experience when she was a teenager. During her senior year of high school, she was living with her grandparents when her grandmother became ill and was told by doctors that she may not live through the night. Her grandmother spent 12 days in the ICU. McDonnell said the nurses who cared for her grandmother during that time had a great influence on her.

“I decided that if those nurses could stay by her side and make sure that she stayed alive, I could do that for somebody else,” McDonnell said. “Twenty-two years later, she’s now 80 years old and feisty as all get out.”

McDonnell said she decided to obtain her SANE training simply because it would make her a better nurse and improve the level of care she could provide.

“I like to help people,” McDonnell said. “The more knowledge I have, the better suited I am for the position and I just feel like the more people I am able to help, the better I am at my job.”

Tschuemperlin grew up in Kane County and lives in Huntley with her fiancé. Her family is from Switzerland and she, her parents and her sister, who also works in a hospital, are the only members of her family living in the U.S.

Tschuemperlin earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Northern Illinois University in 2018 and started working at Sherman later that year. She said she wanted to be a nurse for as long as she could remember. Her father rode dirt bikes and often was injuring himself, so she got a lot of practice taking care of him as a kid.

She has been an ER nurse since 2019. Last year she became a charge nurse in charge of overseeing the ER.

Tschuemperlin said after working with victims of sexual assault in the ER, she decided that if she was going to be taking care of these patients, she wanted to provide the best care that she could so she started her SANE certification.

Tschuemperlin said she has grown a lot since beginning her nursing career and doesn’t have any plans to leave the ER. She said while it can be stressful, she enjoys the fast-paced environment and doing something different every day.

Tschuemperlin and McDonnell often work in the ER together and Tschuemperlin said when she first started as a SANE there were many times when she called McDonnell for help.

“She [McDonnell] is a great resource, not just in SANE, because she has been a nurse much longer than I have,” Tschuemperlin said. “She’s a great resource in nursing in general and for when I have a question regarding SANE.”

“[Tschuemperlin’s] great. I love her,” McDonnell said. “We’re all willing to help each other out and lean on each other when it gets stressful. We all have each other’s backs.”

Being a SANE is just one part of the job. If no sexual assault patients come in, their shifts look the same as the other nurses in the ER. If a victim of assault comes in, the SANE nurse on duty hands off their other duties and that patient becomes their priority.

McDonnell said ideally they would have a SANE in the hospital at all times. When there is no SANE on duty and a victim comes in, the SANE on-call has 90 minutes to get there. She encourages many of her colleagues, especially the newer nurses, to get trained as a SANE because these types of victims shouldn’t have to wait for care.

“In that 90 minutes, the patient just essentially is just waiting for them and that’s not fair to the patient,” McDonnell said.

McDonnell said in addition to the standard SANE procedures, they try to support the patients in any way they can, which could be making a report to the police for them if they don’t feel comfortable doing it themselves or just being present for moral support while they make the report.

“We do everything for these patients,” McDonnell said. “These people are coming in and they’re sharing with me, a complete stranger, something that has happened to them that is just a horrible, awful experience.”

When a sexual assault victim comes in, one of their first calls is to the Elgin Community Crisis Center to send an advocate who will sit in on the exams for moral support if the patient wishes or will support the patient after they leave.

McDonnell said the Elgin Police Department also does a great job of supporting victims who make reports after they are released from the hospital. She said having to tell that again to a complete stranger and relive that experience is already hard and then to tell it again when the police arrive can be like experiencing it all over again, but said they are very therapeutic when working with victims.

SANE nurses also can help them apply for victim crime compensation, which helps pay for any further treatments, therapy or follow-up care they need after they are discharged.

Tschuemperlin said even on a regular ER shift, the volume of patients they see and dealing with critical injuries can be quite stressful. The ER at Sherman sees upward of 100 patients a day on average and some days more than 200.

Tschuemperlin said sometimes all they need is someone to be there. She has had patients who come in crying, but after spending hours working with them, by the end they would be joking around together.

“It’s nice to see that you kind of did make a difference,” Tschuemperlin said.