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After a rape exam, women’s underclothes are often taken as evidence. This nurse buys them new ones.

Martha Phillips sits in the emergency room at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Wash. (Audra Mercille)
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Emergency room nurse Martha Phillips watched a rape survivor walk out of the hospital in oversize scrubs last December, her arms clutched tightly around her chest in embarrassment because her bra had been taken as evidence. Phillips was outraged on her behalf.

Phillips had just given the woman a three-hour forensic exam at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Wash.

“Somebody who has been sexually assaulted has gone through enough trauma,” said Phillips, a nurse for almost 14 years whose team examined 136 rape and sexual assault survivors last year. “And then they have to leave the hospital feeling exposed, without a bra or a decent pair of underwear? It was just unacceptable.”

That afternoon, Phillips, 40, stopped by a family department store in Bellingham and bought $150 worth of bras and underwear to keep at the hospital. Then she posted a photo of the undergarments on Facebook, along with a sentiment that has now been shared more than 100,000 times.

“This is the underwear that no woman wants to wear,” she wrote. “And it’s not just because it’s a plain cotton sports bra the color of Pepto-Bismol. It’s because this is the underwear we give to survivors of rape and sexual assault after we take their own underwear as evidence.”

“But here’s the kicker,” she continued. “That boring sports bra is WAY way WAY better than what some survivors get when they’re discharged. Some women have ALL of their clothes taken for evidence. Shirt. Undershirt. Pants. Bra. Underwear. Even their socks.

“And if the local forensic/sexual assault program that cares for them doesn’t have — or won’t buy — or can’t buy — clothes for them, they get discharged in hospital scrubs. And grippy hospital socks. And postpartum white-mesh hospital underwear. And no bra.”

Phillips ended her post with a link to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network and a plea for people to reach out to their hospital’s forensic nursing team, rape crisis center or domestic violence shelter with donations of new bras, underwear, sweatpants and socks.

Overnight, Phillips said, the response to her post was overwhelming. People dropped off so many bras and underwear at PeaceHealth hospital that there are now enough available to help rape survivors for an entire year, she said. And after that, Phillips added, the hospital has made a commitment to buy the undergarments.

“People all over the country wanted to help. Most of them said they had no idea that this was a need,” she said. “And the second most frequent response was, ‘This happened to me.’”

“God bless you,” one woman commented on Phillips’s Facebook post. “I wish I had a hospital team that would have done that for me.”

“I’ve been that woman walking out — a lifetime ago,” wrote another. “This is sadly true. Thank you for this idea. I will be helping with this now.”

Phillips works with the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services program in Whatcom County to ensure that every woman who gets a forensic exam also receives compassion and support.

“They send an advocate to come and sit with the person during the exam,” she said. “The number one thing I do is say, ‘Look, you’re the person in charge here. Here are all the things we can do. It’s up to you.’ Some want us to call the police and have every part of their bodies swabbed, while others just want to make sure they don’t get pregnant or get HIV. We see the entire spectrum.”

While the majority of sexual assault survivors come to the emergency room with a friend or a relative, many are alone, she said, like the woman who left the hospital in oversize scrubs. And about 70 percent of women who are raped or sexually assaulted in Whatcom County never come to the hospital at all, Phillips said.

“This sense of shame and guilt that keeps them from seeking incredibly important and necessary medical care has to end,” she said. “What happened is not their fault. We truly have a long way to go in this country.”

Phillips’s idea of providing new underwear and bras after exams is one way to help raise awareness, said Amber Icay-Creelman, services manager for the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services program.

“She has true passion for the work she does and exemplifies what it means to be a caring and compassionate nurse,” Icay-Creelman said.

If a new pair of underwear can provide a woman with a small amount of dignity after a sexual assault, it’s worth spending a few extra dollars at the department store, Phillips said.

“All of these things can help make a woman who has survived a violent rape feel like a person again,” she wrote in her Facebook post. "A person. Not a victim. Because it’s a long way down that hallway, out of the hospital, and back into the world. At least she can be comfortable as she takes each step.”

This story has been updated to clarify that Phillips and her nursing team examined 136 rape and sexual assault survivors last year, rather than Phillips performing the exams individually.

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