Submitted by Carrie Stefanson, senior consultant, Public Affairs

Forensic nursing services provide trauma-informed medical and forensic care to individuals who have experienced intentional person-to-person violence.

(Photo) Sheila Early, retired registered nurse and Winston Sayson, former crown prosecutor

"My care at that time [in the 1970s] was to hold the young woman’s hand,” says Sheila Early of her first sexual assault patient as a registered nurse. “I didn’t have a clue what to do and neither did the physician.” In 1985, in another emergency department, a 19-year-old sexual assault victim would unknowingly help define forensic nursing in Canada.  “This time, I got to know what happened. The teenager lost her job and her fiancé and really everything that mattered in her life in a downward spiral of post-traumatic stress disorder,” says the retired registered nurse. Sheila Early’s nursing career eventually brought her to Surrey Memorial Hospital, where in 1992 she became the first registered nurse to perform a sexual assault exam in B.C.

“Let’s be clear, Sheila did not “stay in her lane”,” says Forensic Nurse Practitioner Hannah Varto. “She trained physicians, police officers, lawyers and many, many nurses on how to assess and treat victims of violence.” 

Sheila was instrumental in the development of the forensic nursing program at BCIT, she co-founded the Canadian Forensic Nurses Association, and served as the first Canadian (and Non-American) president of the International Association of Forensic Nurses. She has won many awards for her ground-breaking work.

On November 15, 2022, in a celebration of 30 years of forensic nursing at Surrey Memorial Hospital, Sheila Early and former crown prosecutor Winston Sayson received the Fraser Health Forensic Nursing Service Outstanding Impact Award and the Outstanding Contribution Award respectively.


“I am proud of the forensic nursing program at Surrey Memorial Hospital and the tremendous work that has been done provincially and nationally,” says Martha Cloutier, the hospital’s executive director. “What started in Surrey has become a model of care with approximately 70 forensic nursing programs across Canada.”

The program has evolved to include care for victims of sexual assault, partner violence, child maltreatment and elder abuse. In 2013, the forensic nursing program at Surrey Memorial Hospital received a civil forfeiture grant from the Ministry of Justice for the creation of the first online learning module about human trafficking in Canada, specifically for Fraser Health emergency health-care providers. The training is still utilized throughout Canada and has helped increase awareness and identification of persons who are trafficked and experiencing violence, and accessing emergency care.

In 2015, Embrace Clinic launched with two Nurse Practitioners tasked with providing outpatient medical care to survivors of interpersonal violence. The clinic is part of the forensic nursing service, which operates at Abbotsford Regional Hospital and Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Forensic nursing is a difficult, but rewarding career. “Why do you do it?” says Winston Sayson. “You do it because you care, and because you care, you give life to our community and make our community a safer place.”

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