The Final Exam

Rape is the most personal of crimes—and so Boulder’s sexual-assault nurses took criticism of their program very personally.

At the end of August, a twenty-year-old University of Colorado student was kidnapped by six Asian gang members as she walked home in the gray pre-dawn light. They pulled her off the street and into their van with such unexpected force that her feet left her shoes, then drove her into the mountains and raped her for two hours. Then they left her to wander, barefoot and terrified, in Lefthand Canyon. After thirty minutes of walking, she reached a home and banged on the door for help. She was driven to Boulder by police, examined in a hospital emergency room and then taken to a quiet little building in Niwot that houses the Child and Family Advocacy Center -- the parent organization for the county's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program.

Here, in a room filled with angel images, she was met by SANE nurse Lynn Kimball and given an intensive three-hour physical examination. "She was very brave and very smart," remembers Kimball. "Those exams are hard to go through. They're invasive.

"Afterwards, we came out of the room, and I walked her down the hall to the kitchen. The rape crisis counselor, the victim's friend and the detective announced they'd just made chocolate chip cookies. There was a pile of them on the table, and the whole place smelled like cookies."

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Safe space: Many rape victims were taken to SANE's center in Niwot.
David Rehor
Safe space: Many rape victims were taken to SANE's center in Niwot.

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Kimball sighs. "I know it's such a little thing, but I think in times of grief, the things I remember are people bringing food over. I don't know what the victim's experience of that was. She was probably in shock. She hadn't slept for hours. But I hope that somewhere she stored that away, that she was in a safe place."

The SANE program that helped this victim, however, was on very dangerous ground.

Lynn Kimball is a Boulder Community Hospital nurse with 27 years of experience behind her. She has worked in intensive care and with damaged newborns wavering between life and death. She knows how to coach and pace a rape victim through an exam; she communicates visualization techniques and teaches teenagers terrified of needles the breathing exercises used by women giving birth.

It was Kimball who went to Boulder's Community Hospital in December 1997 to examine a comatose Susannah Chase shortly before she died. Chase, 23 years old, had been found on a downtown Boulder street, bloodied and horribly beaten, a puddle of vomit near her face.

"Emotionally, I did what any nurse or doctor does," Kimball says. "You block off the pain...You don't get into that part. You turn it off, the part that looks at what used to be a person and...She was gone. She had been injured so badly, I knew she wasn't going to make it. I just went very methodically through what I needed to do. We always have to take hair from victims. You take these strands of hair and you think, oh, she has beautiful blond hair, and then you stop yourself. You don't go down there. You don't go any further than that."

But then Kimball adds, "There was nothing I thought about other than that case for a long time."

SANE nurses see every kind of case.

Former SANE nurse Cindy Quinlan had graduated from nursing school in 1987 and gone to work in labor and delivery, first at Denver General Hospital and then at St. Joseph's, where she still practices. Like Kimball, she has seen brutality. She speaks of a thirteen-year-old girl, a runaway from a foster home, who was picked up on the Pearl Street Mall by a man who said she could sleep in his camper. The girl had been on the street a couple of days, says Quinlan, and was exhausted. The man drove her to Nederland, tied her up, assaulted her and kicked her out of the camper. She was found wandering the roads at 4 a.m. By the time she reached the center, "she was very belligerent," Quinlan says. "She just wanted to sleep. That's all she wanted to do. So I tucked her up on one of the couches and let her sleep for three hours. After that, she was completely cooperative, just a lovely little girl."

Quinlan also remembers a Longmont woman who had been tied up, stabbed and raped, and came in with duct tape still clinging to her wrists.

Some of Quinlan's cases were simply inexplicable. One woman said a stranger had attacked her in her house, beaten her with a baseball bat and raped her with a broken beer bottle with the cap still on it. The woman had a big knot on her forehead, two black eyes, multiple bruises -- and no vaginal injury. None. Something had happened to the woman, but in terms of rape, "it was a false report, completely," Quinlan says.

She's heard other false reports. A mentally ill young homeless woman came to the center repeatedly, each time having picked up a man, had sex with him and then reported him to police. Every time she came in, Quinlan explains, the woman got a clean set of clothes, clean underwear, a new toothbrush and a teddy bear. "We decided if she came through again, we would give her the clothes, the toothbrush and the bear," she says, "and not do an exam."

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