Chicago Tribune highlights pioneering work of local nurses
In November 2019 the paper had two good pieces about nurses improving health in innovative ways. First, it ran a substantial obituary of Vivian Meehan, a ground-breaking national leader in addressing anorexia nervosa and related conditions. And a later article profiled sexual assault forensic nurses, discussing their vital work at the intersection of health care and law.
November 2019 – This month the Chicago Tribune ran two good articles about local nurses working on the cutting edge of care. On November 8, the paper had an obituary for Vivian Meehan, a Highland Park nurse who founded the National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) in 1976 and served as its executive director until 2009. Karen Berkowitz’s piece explains that Meehan founded the group after her daughter returned from college weighing less than 70 pounds. But in the 1970s, such issues were not well-understood. Meehan founded ANAD out of the basement of her home while practicing as a nursing supervisor. The group came to be seen as a primary resource for health professionals and others interested in the problem. Meehan is also credited with starting to change national cultural attitudes that promoted unrealistic body weight expectations. Today, ANAD sponsors more than 100 free support groups and has a network of hundreds of volunteers. And on November 29, 2019, the Tribune ran another strong piece, about the work of sexual assault forensic examiner nurses in the local Franciscan Health system. Jerry Davich’s article was “Forensic nurses treat victims where health care and law intersect: ‘Some things we can’t un-hear, we can’t un-see.’” It explains that these nurses are specially trained to provide care for assault and other trauma victims, as well as to collect evidence and testify in prosecutions. The piece focuses on three forensic nurses who appear to be coordinators of a program for victims at the health system’s different campuses. The article includes multiple quotes from each nurse. They do a good job of explaining some basic aspects of the work, from the training to the psychosocial care for victims to the courtroom role. We thank the Tribune for these pieces.
You can be too thin
Where health care and the law intersect
You can be too thin
The headline of the Vivian Meehan obituary notes that she “put [the] national spotlight on eating disorders.” With her daughter’s weight loss in the 1970s, the piece says, Meehan struggled to find information about the condition, even placing a classified ad in a community newspaper. That ad led to a national magazine picking up the story, and thousands of responses. Meehan started an eating disorders group out of her basement while practicing as a “night nursing supervisor” at Highland Park Hospital, and in 1976 she founded ANAD, directing it for the next 33 years. The piece says the group “quickly came to be regarded as a primary resource for educators, media and health professionals,” citing a 1992 article by the Tribune itself. The new article quotes Lynn Slawsky, current executive director of ANAD, as saying that Meehan started to change public perceptions about weight at a time when most physicians did not see anorexia nervosa as a significant problem. Today, the condition is recognized as common and deadly, taking more lives than any other mental health condition except for opioid addiction. The obituary also notes that Meehan changed some media imagery, persuading consumer products companies to discontinue ads promoting what her husband describes as the idea that “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Today, the piece notes, ANAD operates a helpline and sponsors more than 100 free support groups, with a network of hundreds of volunteers, including some who serve as mentors to those in recovery. Meehan received several White House awards for her work in the 1970s and 1980s. Finally, Meehan’s daughter Lisa explains that her mother saved her life. Lisa had begun eating far too little, for social reasons and because she felt overwhelmed at college. But helped by the information her mother found and shared, she “eventually recovered and became a software engineer.”
This obituary shows readers how an effective nursing advocate got started and the impact she had. Meehan saw an urgent need and acted to meet it, not only for her daughter but for everyone. It must have taken tenacity to start and run ANAD from her basement at a time when few took the condition seriously. But she created a life-saving organization that continues to operate. And as we know, it’s not easy to change attitudes on issues that most people think they already understand (like nursing itself). The piece might have done more to bring out the expertise that Meehan developed in her pioneering work, but on the whole it’s very helpful.
Where health care and the law intersect
The forensic nurse article explains that sexual assault nurse examiners are specialized nurses trained to “treat and comfort” victims. The piece refers to these professionals as SANE nurses. That acronym, while still common, has a distracting mental health connotation, and the alternative SAFE (for sexual assault forensic examiner) would likely be better. The article focuses on Franciscan Health system nurses Michelle Resendez, Lori Bridegroom, and Sara Montalbano. Each appears to be a coordinator responsible for the forensic nursing program at different campuses of the system. One campus reportedly “offers a five-day intensive SANE adult/adolescent training course that instructs nurses to provide trauma-informed, victim-centered care, injury identification, evidence preservation, forensic photography and documentation.” The article has multiple quotes from each of the three nurses. Resendez explains that forensic nurses work “where health care and the law intersect.” They not only provide specialized care and support for victims of assault or other trauma, but also gather evidence and testify in legal proceedings. Bridegroom’s comments focus on the perspective of victims, who may feel shame, and on debunking myths, for example noting that contrary to popular belief, most sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Montalbano stresses that her work to some extent allows her to fulfill childhood dreams of becoming “a cop, a doctor, or a teacher” all at once. She also describes the challenge of providing good psychosocial care by mirroring patients—“They can tell if you’re faking it.” The piece conveys how difficult the job can be. It tells the story of one SAFE nurse who did a great job withstanding cross-examination, then went to Resendez and quit, saying the work was too stressful. Even the photo captions add some valuable information. One notes that the nurses use a “CortexFlo colposcope camera,” which has “hands-free and voice-command options,” to document abuse. Providing historical context, the piece explains that even less than a decade ago, there was far less coordination between hospitals, law enforcement, advocates, and others with an interest in this work. The SAFE nurse programs have helped, although it sounds like there could still be better information sharing; the article closes with Resendez and Bridegroom wishing they got updates from prosecutors’ offices about the status of all the cases they work on.
This article does many things well. It tells readers what SAFE nurses do and why they do it, including some detail that will convey their technical skills. The piece also presents them as autonomous health professionals, with no suggestion that they are being supervised by physicians. It allows the nurses themselves to explain their work with many quotes, unlike articles that spend too much time with physicians or others, which can have the effect of suggesting that the nurses are simply doing what someone else tells them. And the piece gives a sense of the challenges of the work, like the stress involved in the law enforcement elements. The article might have given a broader perspective on the growth and importance of SAFE nurses nationally. But on the whole the piece is still very helpful, and we thank those responsible.
See the obituary by Karen Berkowitz, “Highland Park nurse Vivian Meehan, who put national spotlight on eating disorders in 1970s, dies at age 94,” published in the Chicago Tribune, November 9, 2019.
Also see the article “Forensic nurses treat victims where health care and law intersect: ‘Some things we can’t un-hear, we can’t un-see’,” by Jerry Davich, published in the Chicago Tribune, November 29, 2019.