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There are few black sexual assault nurse examiners. A university wants to change that.

A 2020 survey found that 81% of registered nurses in the United States were white and only 6.7% were black, according to the Journal of Nursing Regulation.

Dr. Sheila Cannon, associate dean of the Fayetteville State School of Nursing, organized the recent training with funding from the state legislature.

This $1.5 million appropriation for Fayetteville State follows a news report last year that showed few sexual assault nurse examiners were working in rural North Carolina hospitals, which meant that some patients had to travel hours from home or wait days for care.

The report spurred a wave of action at the state and federal levels to pay for training and support for sexual assault nurse examiners. Congress has approved $30 million a year for the next eight years for this work, and Cannon hopes to secure a portion of federal funds to expand the program.

Dr Sheila Cannon.Cornell Watson for NBC News

It was difficult to get this program at Fayetteville State University. Cannon had tried to get a federal grant, but lost out to schools with more resources or their own hospital, such as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Training is usually offered at a few hospitals or universities and can cost hundreds of dollars.

Cannon, who is black, said that before working at Fayetteville State she was a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner and that some of her psychotherapy patients were victims of sexual abuse or assault.

“I know the impact of trauma is lifelong,” Cannon said. “You are going through such a level of trauma that you really need supportive intervention early on. You need someone to stand up for you, someone to give you compassionate care.

Last week’s practical course, which was free thanks to funding from the Legislature, was aimed at helping nurses feel more comfortable treating sexual assault patients.

On the first day of clinical training, students practiced what they had learned in the classroom by taking exams on forensic teaching associates, who served as both role models and teachers when the nurses asked for their consent to collect evidence from their bodies, search for injuries and perform speculum insertions. A scan can take up to six hours – and possibly double that if an untrained nurse is reading the instructions for a rape kit for the first time.

Students receive instruction through an exam in a role-playing exercise with Denishia Harris, center, during Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner training at the State University of Fayetteville
Godwin and Andrews-Arce receive instructions.Cornell Watson for NBC News

Although Godwin knew it was a drill, she was still nervous about starting.

“Do we do this now?” she whispered to Beth Andrews-Arce, her colleague at the Betsy Johnson Hospital, as they stood on one side of a thin curtain separating them from a forensic teaching associate who was playing the role of an assault victim awaiting treatment.

Andrews-Arce nodded and picked up a clipboard. Godwin parted the curtain, sat down on a nearby stool, and introduced himself to the woman. She tried to figure out what had happened to her. The answers to these questions would help guide the examination to DNA that might have been left behind by an attacker. Godwin stopped occasionally to ask questions of his instructor.

Afterwards, Godwin said the training helped her have more confidence to take the exams.

“I want to learn my script for how I move through things so I can be more efficient and the patient can feel more comfortable and confident in what I’m doing,” Godwin said.


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