By Nicole Ferris
“I knew what was in store the day I married a super hero,” says Mr. Smith, while driving his wife into Manhattan at 3:00 a.m. to attend to a West Village patient who had just been sexually assaulted. His words are genuine and accurate. Amy Smith is an exceptional human being. She leads the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) program at Lenox Health Greenwich Village (LHGV, or, Northwell). Since 2014, the tranquil 12th Street standalone emergency room has received a total of 137 cases of sexual assault, including 20 new cases of sexual assault to date this year.
In a world saddened by Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, Amy is a breath of fresh air. And her CEO agrees. From over 61,000 employees, Amy was named winner of the prestigious 2016 Northwell Health President’s Award. LHGV Executive Director Alex Hellinger calls Amy “an example of teamwork, leadership, patient advocacy, and innovation. I am blown away by her commitment, the difference she makes for every individual that she touches. She holds hands.”
Across nine years at Northwell, Amy has served as a forensic nurse, sexual assault advocate, sexual assault nurse examiner, emergency nursing instructor, and a New York State Department of Health (DOH) preceptor. Her path began at the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), and continues today at Hofstra University. Despite a full life that currently includes graduate studies, her children, and professional commitments, “Amy does so much more than her job. She volunteers her knowledge of sexual assault patient care across schools, the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, the Emergency Nurses Association, the FDNY, and more. This passion is not only her work but her lifestyle. Amy seeks out opportunities to educate not only the public, but also the professionals charged with protecting the public. Instead of being specialized care, it becomes the standard care offered to all victims of sexual assault,” says Alex Hellinger.
LHGV is a SAFE Center of Excellence. This best-in-class designation is conferred by the DOH. SAFE Centers feature Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) comprised of medical specialists rigorously trained to perform evaluations, ensure health safety, document injuries, collect forensic evidence, and tend to the emotional needs of rape victims. LHGV has six specialized SART forensic nurses. Every emergency room staffer receives SAFE case best practices training. On average, sexual assault victims receive care within 10 minutes of arrival at LHGV. Reporting to the emergency room as soon as possible is encouraged, ideally prior to 96 hours after sexual assault. Medical expenses are 100% covered for all sexual assault treatment at every SAFE Center of Excellence. Neither the patient nor the insurer will incur cost. Sexual assault patients receive completely free care at LHGV.
Amy’s philosophy emphasizes human-centric support, sensitivity, and a judgement-free atmosphere. For example, victims of sexual assault receive Amy’s direct mobile number. As rape is a crime of control, staff work to re-establish patient empowerment. At LHGV, patients control care. Patient advocates present a medical menu to patients, who then self-select options related to birth control, STI, and HIV care. Diversity is respected in partnership with the LGBT Community Center. SART staff strives to foster a privacy-conscious environment. There is no public waiting. Sexual assault patients may even skip the front entrance. During the design phase, LHGV (ingeniously) built an external door directly into the patient exam room to accommodate private entrance upon personal request. Identity is also vigorously protected. If a sexual assault victim is age 12 or older, the staff is legally required to guard and protect patient confidentiality—even from parents and guardians. (CliffsNotes recap for teenage readers: Help available. Free. Confidential.)
Did you know that sexual assault is the only non-reportable crime? Visiting the emergency room for sexual assault will not trigger an automatic police intervention. Whether a patient chooses to be anonymous or elects to report is an individual matter. Patients are not pressured. Decisions are respected. A police report is never required to access free medical care. When a patient requests police intervention, Amy partners with the 6th Precinct and the Special Victims Division, whom she praises as “amazing.” Amy, who has testified as an expert witness in many rape cases, says New York City is forensic-evidence friendly. Those who are sexually assaulted and undergo evidence collection can feel confident in knowing that today all rape kits are tested.
Shame and stigma adversely impact survivors, as well as institutions. Amy considers her award “a triumph for my patients—those brave enough to come forward and give me the privilege of hearing their stories and trusting me with their wellbeing in such a vulnerable state. [They look] to a stranger to give them back hope, and give them the tools they need to regain the control and decisional capacity taken from them.”
Amy is proud of her employer. “Northwell is brave enough to not let the things that make us uncomfortable as a society stop us from delivering high quality, patient-centered care. Northwell is recognizing sexual assault—an important issue that we are not afraid to talk about.” Perhaps the Northwell model can inspire other institutions to also reject stigma. Strong leaders lift shame. Just look at Amy. Her next dream project is to host on-campus town halls during new student orientation to raise rape awareness at universities in Greenwich Village.
National Nurses Day is May 6th. WestView applauds the talented SAFE nurse team (Stephanie, Liza, Rosalee, Wanda and both Natalies) which supports our friends and our families—as well as their leader—a gutsy neighborhood protagonist who chose to honor her altruistic life calling.
Thank you for existing, Amy Smith.
If you wish to volunteer or philanthropically support the cause of sexual assault patient care, Amy Smith endorses The New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, which can be reached at (212) 229-0345 and www.svfreenyc.org. The Lenox Health Greenwich Village (Northwell) Emergency Room is located at 30 7th Avenue at 12th Street and can be reached at (646) 665-6000.
Nicole Ferris is President of The West Village Fund.