For more than two years, sexual assault survivors in Longview had to make the vulnerable 90-mile round-trip ride to Tyler for a qualified nurse to collect evidence that might bring the perpetrator to justice.

Not anymore.

Christus Good Shepherd Health System unveiled its Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program Wednesday and showed off examination rooms in Longview where trained nurses will perform forensic exams and collect evidence after a reported sexual assault.

It’s a service that hadn’t been available in Gregg County since at least February 2017.

SANE Program Administrative Director Jennifer Wood sees the need daily while treating patients in Good Shepherd’s emergency department, she said.

“When the survivors present, and they’re told they have to drive 45 miles for an exam, oftentimes they opted out and said, ‘No, just forget it.’ But if they can get the exam in real time here and collect the evidence, then we can proceed with the criminal case in real time,” Wood said. “It’s near and dear to my heart, and I know it’s so needed in the community.”

Longview Police Department, the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office, Martin House Children’s Advocacy Center, Women’s Center of East Texas and other agencies helped Christus in establishing the program, but organizers said it started about a year ago at County Judge Bill Stoudt’s urging.

“Stoudt brought it to our attention,” Christus Good Shepherd CEO Todd Hancock said. “Frankly, it wasn’t on our radar.”

Along with the forensic exams closer to home, survivors also get access to mental health services for the post-traumatic stress of sexual assault.

“I’m a psychiatric nurse practitioner,” Wood said, “and my partner Dr. Ivan Pawlowicz, we are in the resident clinic across the street, so we can provide that additional follow-up as needed.”

In February 2017, Longview lost its last SANE nurse. Shannon Trest, executive director of the Women’s Center of East Texas, said SANE nurses either moved away or left the field because of burnout.

In time, local leaders of law, government, health and forensics quietly came together to figure out a solution.

Meanwhile, sexual assault survivors who presented themselves to local authorities or the hospital were asked to ride in a private vehicle or the back of a police car to Tyler hospitals, where qualified SANE nurses were available.

“Unless you have it where everything kind of aligns, then you’re not going to get a program off the ground again,” Trest said. “Finally, a year ago, we were in a place where it all lined out, and so we were able to move forward.”

It was Christus that promised to bring SANE examiners back to the county, Trest said.

“When we started having these meetings a year ago, (Christus Chief Nursing Officer) Teresa (Halcomb) said it would take a year, and I said, ‘That’s impossible.’ Of course, I think we can just move it out,” Trest said, quickly snapping her fingers.

Bringing a SANE program back to Gregg County wasn’t a simple snap of the fingers, however.

Christus first asked for nurses to volunteer to become SANE certified. A year later, two nurses are certified in the program, and five more nurses are wrapping up their certification.

Each nurse needed 80 hours’ education, 20 child exams, 15 adult exams and 18 actual SANE forensic exams of adults, young children and adolescents before they were official, Halcomb said. Much of that training happened at Christus Trinity Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler and Christus Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

Halcomb credited Hancock and Christus for its commitment to the finances, including about $50,000 a year in travel and education costs for the nurses to obtain and maintain their certifications.

Under SANE Coordinator Kim Allen’s guidance, program nurses underwent soft go-live and mock drills over the past month to make sure the process is smooth when they start examinations.

“I’ve been an ER nurse for over 20 years, and to have a victim — a survivor — come in needing the SANE service and not having a SANE nurse on call, that is so sad, and that is part of what has drawn me to the program,” Allen said. “This is my home, and this is a great need.”

Christus also will offer monthly or quarterly debriefing for the nurses and provide counseling to handle the stresses of the job, Halcomb said.

The lack of SANE nurses has become a nationwide trend, she said. Texas has only a few hundred SANE nurses.

Last September, the Texas A&M College of Nursing announced that it received a $1.47 million three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to recruit and train nurses from rural and underserved areas in Texas to become certified adult sexual assault nurse examiners, along with forensic nurses currently in practice for enhanced experimental learning or certification.

“There is definitely a shortage,” Halcomb said, “but also the educational opportunities and the funding for that have not been available, and now then, we’ve not only got a huge academic university that is committed to that in Texas, we also will have the funding and means through Christus corporate that we haven’t had before that will also be able to help us sustain this program with our nurses.”

Trest and Longview Police Lt. Paul Hickey said it is unknown how many sexual assault survivors have gone to Tyler for forensic exams over the past 29 months.

“Not all sexual assaults presented at law enforcement would present at a hospital,” Trest said, “so that number is going to be a little bit skewed. We have people who call our hotline who don’t want to involve law enforcement or don’t want to involve the hospital, so again those numbers are different. … That’s a number we can’t predict just because there’s so many moving parts.”

What mattered most Wednesday was that victims in Longview can again complete a critical step toward getting justice without a 90-mile ride of vulnerability.

“It’s no easy thing to put this thing together,” Hancock said. “We had to have nurses to volunteer to do it, to go through the countless hours of training and all of the things — many of which they had to travel outside of our community to get their necessary training. They quickly stepped up. Everybody realized that this was important.”

Jimmy Daniell Isaac covers the city of Longview and Gregg County. Follow him on Twitter: @jimmyisaaclives.