Heroine of the day
"Nurse of the year, Jennifer Keeler, wants to make victims of sexual assault and domestic violence 'survivors from the second they see me'."
COLE BURSTON/THE STAR
When the door of Chantel’s Place clicks shut, the sounds of the Mississauga Hospital’s hallway outside fade away. The overhead paging system is silenced; stretchers and cleaning carts rattling by on the obstetrics ward are muffled.
Inside, a dreamcatcher dangles from the window next to the exam chair, and tropical fish dart around an aquarium. Two large armchairs sit in front of a large picture window, beckoning guests to sit and find comfort in the spring sunshine spilling through a stained-glass mural, casting a pool of soft peach light on the floor. It’s an oasis for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors who are in the midst of one of their darkest moments.
Nurse practitioner Jennifer Keeler is the co-ordinator of Chantel’s Place, one of 35 centres in Ontario that specialize in caring for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
Whether patients come in escorted by police, seeking a quiet place to tell their stories after being in the emergency room to have bones X-rayed or wounds sutured, or after being referred from a local community health centre, Keeler’s goal is to comfort and empower her patients. “I want to try and make them survivors from the second they see me,” she says.
Registered nurse Connie Stevens says Keeler’s immense compassion and devotion to her work makes her a deserving recipient of this year’s Toronto Star Nightingale Award, presented annually during Nursing Week. The winner and honourable mentions are selected by a panel of representatives from nursing associations and the Toronto Star.
“She gives people back a face and really helps to empower them,” Stevens says.
The sanctuary inside Chantel’s Place is a far cry from its beginnings in the early 1990s, when Keeler was part of a team of on-call nurses and doctors in the emergency room. Keeler says her feminism and concern for women’s issues drew her to the team, started by a nurse and a Peel Regional Police officer in memory of Chantel Paquette, whose boyfriend murdered her.
“Everybody asks, ‘How can you do this?’ I think: How can you not?” Keeler says. “The majority of the world has to stand on the sidelines, and I get to address (sexual assault) and actually do something, which I think is important.”
In 2002, Keeler became the co-ordinator of the clinic. By then, she was working on her forensic nursing certificate — a perfect fit for a nurse who got into the profession after a part-time job in a veterinary clinic in high school got her excited about science.
The 53-year-old has spent her entire 32-year career in various units of the Mississauga Hospital site of Trillium Health Partners. She has extra training as a sexual assault nurse examiner specializing in adults and children, and in 2008, she earned her nurse practitioner certificate, a designation that makes it easier for her to order tests and perform exams so patients can get all the care they need within the cocoon of Chantel’s Place.
Cradling those patients here is a point of pride for Keeler. She ensures police and local health and social services know about the clinic so that, unless there are injuries that need immediate attention, they bring patients directly to her and bypass the emergency room altogether.
Once they are inside, Keeler puts patients in charge. That means letting survivors decide if they want to have a physical exam, collect evidence, or involve police. If the nurses do collect evidence, they ask questions about the assault, look for DNA to collect, and photograph and document any injuries. Any evidence is stored in the clinic for up to six months. They check blood or urine for alcohol and drugs, and talk about the risks of sexually transmitted infections or HIV. Social workers then provide counselling.
Keeler says about half her patients want to involve the police. For those who do, Chantel’s Place is equipped with a police interview room, set up like a family room. Deep armchairs and a couch offer a place for women to share their stories and provide a video statement while police record from the room next door.
It’s common for nurses on staff to testify at trial, so Keeler makes sure all her nurses are trained in how the court system works. Keeler knows not everyone wants to press charges, or leave an abusive partner, but she wants survivors to know they’re not alone.
“Sometimes people are telling you things they’ve never told anyone, and you’re bearing witness to that,” she says.
Children are among those most likely to keep any assault a secret. Keeler takes them through a head-to-toe exam and reassures them the situation is not his or her fault, also working with their parents. She acknowledges it can be difficult to work on these cases, but she says she gets strength from her supportive friends and her own children, who all grew up knowing their mom could be called into work at any moment.
“This work is not your typical 8:30 to 4:30 (job),” she says. “If something comes in late, I stay.”
Fellow RN Kathleen Madigan says Keeler’s commitment keeps Chantel’s Place open 24/7. One of the team’s on-call RNs must be at the hospital within 45 minutes of learning a patient is being brought in. That means police outside Peel Region sometimes bring women to Chantel’s Place because they know it never closes. Madigan says Keeler will fill in if there isn’t a nurse available for a shift, even if that means coming there in the middle of the night and then working the next day.
“She cannot tolerate thinking there’s someone who needs to be seen, and there’s no one here,” Madigan says. “A lot of that is because of Jenn being the person she is.”
Keeler hopes the recent media attention on sexual assault, especially the trial of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, will encourage more people to come forward for help.
“If it doesn’t feel right, that’s sexual assault,” she says. “People also need to recognize it’s never their fault. You can’t be responsible for someone else assaulting you.”
by JILL SCARROW - The Star