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Victims of sex assaults in hospitals urged to seek help

Jan 08 2012

Sexual assaults can affect lives decades later and victims should seek help even if they are not willing to officially report the attack, an expert says.

The advice from Tracy Lubick, of Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre, came this past week after reports of problems in mixed-gender hospital rooms rolled in to the Times Colonist following the alleged sexual assault of an 83-year-old woman at Cowichan District Hospital.

Some who said they were assaulted did not lodge complaints.

A 70-year-old woman, who claimed to have been raped in a mixed-gender room at Victoria General Hospital after surgery in 2009, was hesitant as she described the incident.

She did not report it. "I decided at the time that I was going to speak to my own doctor," she said. "I knew I had to live with it." The woman came forward to emphasize the need to scrap co-ed rooms, which Vancouver Island Health Authority is working on.

The decision to keep quiet is not unusual and does not apply only to older women, Lubick said.

"It is common among all demographics. People are afraid they are not going to be believed," she said.

There is also a fear that the victim will be blamed, Lubick said.

That was the experience of the woman allegedly assaulted in Victoria General. "I mistakenly told my husband and he felt I had asked for it and I must have been too friendly," she said.

Lubick said anyone who has been assaulted should contact a community resource, such as a sexual assault centre.

In Victoria, information can be given anonymously over a crisis line, she said. "The first thing is to tell someone and talk about it."

VIHA spokeswoman Shannon Marshall said anyone with a complaint should immediately talk to a nurse. "Then, if you are not satisfied, take it to the nurse manager on the unit and then the patient quality care office," she said. "Sexual assaults in hospital are extremely rare, but if they are not reported, there is no way of following up."

Former nurse Anne Troutman said complaints should also be followed up by health bosses. She was placed in a mixed-gender room after breast cancer surgery at VGH in 2007.

"I was awakened in the middle of the night by one of the male patients standing at the foot of my bed naked and urinating into the waste basket," she said.

Nurses responded to her calls, she said.

"He had also defecated by the door and soiled the area such that no patients could use the bathroom until the cleaners arrived for the morning shift."

Troutman discharged herself the next morning and wrote a letter of complaint to VGH, but did not follow up when she did not receive a response.

"I was really ticked off that they never had the decency to acknowledge my letter," said Troutman.

VIHA is formalizing a policy that will require patients in two-bed rooms to be the same gender.

When it is necessary to mix genders in larger rooms, a minimum of two patients in each room must be women.

Patients in mixed-gender rooms must be mentally competent and able to speak out about concerns.

Those with known histories of violence, mental health issues or inappropriate sexual behaviour will not be placed in mixed rooms. jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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