It’s too easy to conclude that the treatment, comfort and compassion denied a young woman who went to a regional hospital emergency room and reported she’d been raped is another symptom of a system in crisis.
It may be, but it is also a failure too abject to write off as systemic malfunction. This runs deeper. It cuts to the very heart of what people have a right to expect, obviously when they enter a hospital emergency room, but also from one another.
If a 22-year-old woman in visible distress showed up at the door of most homes or walked into a storefront business in Anytown, Canada, and said she had been raped, she would, in virtually all cases, be comforted and cared for while she waited for the ambulance to arrive.
Yet, when this young Truro-area woman took herself to the emergency department of the Colchester East Hants Health Centre and told them she’d been raped, she was given some pamphlets on sexual assault and sent on her way, crying, alone and into the early morning darkness.
She did not see a doctor, receive medical care or much human comfort. She was connected by phone to a nurse who works with the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program at another hospital. SANE isn’t available in Truro. But, understandably, after the call she was still afraid, confused and had no idea where to turn.
One thing is certain, her initial instinct to turn to the emergency room of the regional hospital in Truro – an instinct most Nova Scotians would agree was good – turned out wrong.
A spokesperson for the provincial Health Department said the department is trying to get to the bottom of what happened in Truro that night not long ago. She said the department wants to find out what happened and make sure it gets fixed.
The Nova Scotia Health Authority, which has direct operational responsibility for the hospitals, said the woman’s story has not been verified, but they too were looking into it.
The authority cautioned that reporting on sexual assault and violence might re-traumatize the victim. Except, this young woman and her mother told their story to Saltwire’s Harry Sullivan because she was turned away, untreated from a Nova Scotia hospital.
She was re-traumatized already, not by reporting her story, but by a hospital that didn’t care about her.
“We would encourage a person who has had a negative experience in care to contact us with their concerns,” said the authority in a written response to questions about what went so terribly wrong at its Truro hospital.
“A negative experience?” A rape victim was turned away from a hospital. That’s not “a negative experience.” That’s an appalling failure.
Both the department and the NSHA enumerated the services available to victims of sexual assault in Halifax, Antigonish, Sydney and Yarmouth, and soon in Cape Breton and Western Nova Scotia, but not Central Nova Scotia.
The provincial Health Department wrote to say, “We don’t have any information on the circumstances surrounding the incident... Certainly no one should be turned away and we are looking into this. We certainly expect care to be provided to victims of sexual violence whether or not specialized services are available at a particular location.”
The departmental spokesperson is unaware of this happening before but agreed that once is too often.
This is the kind of unfathomable event that should cause Health Minister Randy Delorey and NSHA CEO Janet Knox to ask themselves and their staffs some hard questions about the culture of the organizations they lead.
Health care professionals are human and make mistakes but turning the victim of a sexual assault out on the street, on her own, seems to be beyond an error in judgment. It hints at an unhealthy culture within the system Delorey oversees and Knox runs.
The NSHA seems disinclined to accept the story because it came to them in the newspaper. It came to them in the newspaper because the people the NSHA and its hospital failed, have no reason to trust the hospital or the authority that runs it.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.