The 16-year-old female was Fluharty’s first patient after finishing classroom instruction for her forensic nurse examiner certification. The patient said she had been sexually assaulted and came to the hospital for a forensic exam, which included turning her clothes over to the police as evidence.
With nothing else to wear, the patient was given scrubs. Having to leave the hospital wearing scrubs after going through a traumatic assault and the exam was "horrible and demeaning and terrible," said Fluharty, a nurse at Shore Health System’s Memorial Hospital at Easton (Md.).
Fluharty decided other patients should not have to go through that again. "I think they need to walk out with some kind of dignity," she said.
To help patients who have been sexually assaulted, Fluharty created Operation Power Purse — a program to provide clothing bags for victims of sexual assault.
When a victim of sexual assault is admitted to the ED, staff call a nurse trained in caring for those patients, Fluharty said.
The nurses conduct an exam, which can take three to four hours and typically includes documenting the victim’s medical history; performing a head-to-toe assessment of the body including collecting blood, urine, hair or other samples and photographing injuries; and talking with patients about sexually transmitted infections, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a nonprofit anti-sexual violence organization. DNA — which can be found on a victim’s body or clothing — is a key tool for law enforcement’s investigation and prosecution of a sexual assault case, according to RAINN.
After the exam, the nurse at Dorchester General Hospital in Cambridge, Md., or Memorial Hospital at Easton asks whether the patient would be interested in a Power Purse — a mesh bag filled with clothes, undergarments, socks and toiletries, Fluharty said. The nurse asks the patient’s size then goes into a coordinator’s office and searches through the sizes from XXS to 4X to find jeans, sweatshirts, shorts or other clothing the patient would feel comfortable wearing. The 15 to 20 women who have been helped since the program started in April said they were "extremely grateful" for the purses, Fluharty said.
In March, Fluharty, a member of the Shore Health System Nursing Shared Leadership Global Council, presented the idea of collecting clothing and toiletries to provide to victims of sexual assault. In April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, she started a clothing drive with collection boxes in the EDs at Memorial Hospital at Easton; Dorchester General Hospital; Queen Anne’s Emergency Center, Queenstown, Md.; and at two local businesses.
Fluharty knew the program needed a "good, strong, community-catching name" and came up with Operation Power Purse to convey strength to those who received them.
"The bag would give them the power to go back in the community and remain strong," she said.
A month later, the community had been so generous that "we have enough clothes, toiletries, underwear, socks, feminine products ... for both campuses of the hospital and then some," said Karen Jackson, RN, FNE-A/P, SAFE/SART coordinator at Shore Health Systems.
The effort also generated about $700 in donations the health system can use to buy more supplies for the purses, Fluharty said.
Along with clothes, the mesh bags include toiletries such as shampoo, deodorant and toothpaste so patients can use them if they need to stay at a shelter or other home, she said.
Operation Power Purse also brought a new awareness about treating and reporting sexual assault to the area.
"You need to be aware this does happen in a small community," Fluharty said, adding it happens more often than people think.
More than 207,000 people in the U.S. are victims of sexual assault each year — which translates into a sexual assault occurring every two minutes, according to RAINN.
About 54% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police, RAINN statistics showed.
Because of the generosity of the community donating clothing, the program has helped patients beyond sexual assault victims. The hospitals provide those items to patients or family members who arrive at the ED in need of clothing, Jackson said.
"This little project turned into a huge project that will affect and help many victims of abuse and other victims that present to the emergency room," she said.
Operation Power Purse made Fluharty feel proud to be a sexual assault nurse examiner in her community.
"It makes my job as a nurse so rewarding," Fluharty said. "I love my job. I love what I do."
Karen Long is a freelance writer.
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