Hard Evidence: Methodist Forensic Nurse Nicolette Baer

August 30, 2017

Nicolette Baer was sobbing, standing inside her Indianapolis home when her husband walked in.

He took one look at his wife and knew: “They got him, didn’t they?” he asked.

These tears Baer was crying were tears of relief -- tears born from sleepless nights and horrific pictures playing over and over in her head.

Baer had been there when the elderly woman came in to IU Health Methodist Hospital’s emergency department. The woman had just been brutally raped by a stranger Downtown.

The woman, Baer says “had some of the most horrific injuries” she had ever seen, injuries in places that were unthinkable.

That traumatized woman didn’t know who had done this to her. Some stranger. Baer collected DNA, spent hours with the woman, soothing her, talking with her, giving her options to press charges.

She collected her clothes – now criminal evidence -- and took down word for word the woman’s story.

That DNA ended up matching a man in a nationwide database. When it came time, Baer took the stand in court and testified on everything she had found, everything she had heard.

And then, the phone call came from the prosecutor, followed by the tears. Guilty. The monster who had committed the vicious crime was guilty.

“This case was just awful,” says Baer, who has been a forensic nurse at Methodist since 2010. “The pictures said a thousand words.”

When the guilty pleas come in, that’s the most rewarding part for Baer. When she gets to see someone pay for the evil they’ve done.

“You feel like you are doing a service, which is beautiful,” says Baer. “And I love this population. I love these people. Every one of them.”

***

She’s sitting in the ER when her pager goes off. This could be a case for forensics. Baer reads the message. A patient is on his way to the hospital with “lacerations from a table saw.”

“So, I don’t need to go see him,” says Baer, a married mother of two. This injury was an accident. If someone else had taken the table saw to the man, he would be Baer’s.

A forensic nurse is a fascinating job. It’s part criminal investigator, part medical caregiver. Nurses are certified and trained to work in the field of forensics.

“People look at us as law enforcement,” Baer says. “But we say, ‘No. We’re medical,’ even though we collect evidence and get grilled on the stand.’”

At Methodist, the forensic nurses are based in the ER. They are part of the hospital’s Center of Hope, supporting any victim of violence who may come in, whether it be a sexual assault, domestic violence, gun shot wounds or stabbings.

In the month of July alone, Methodist’s Center of Hope saw 108 people -- 17 sexual assaults (six of those were patients ages 14 to 17); 43 physical assaults; 22 domestic violence; and 15 gunshot wounds, as well as 11 under other categories of violence.

“Too many,” Baer says. “Too many.”

Lucky for those patients, they have a nurse like Baer waiting on them, ready to do anything she can to help makes things a little easier.

***

Take a rape victim. They might come in on their own, or be brought in by a detective. They may be brought by ambulance.

After a medical screening exam by a physician, to make sure they don’t need surgery or any immediate medical care, Baer will take them into the forensic room. She treats them for sexually-transmitted disease and other medical issues. She starts collecting evidence.

“Everything is based on the story they tell us,” says Baer, who is working now for a master’s degree to be a nurse practitioner. “And we collect evidence based on that story.”

Baer will take photos and write down their story. Every word. She might bag up clothes. She swabs areas for DNA. She has a “refrigerator full of bullets.”

“The operating room will call us and say, ‘We have a bullet,’” Baer says. “So, we need to secure that bullet because it is from a crime scene and it is evidence. We log it and lock it in the refrigerator until the detectives come and get it.”

Beyond the physical collection part of her job, there is the emotional side. Not every victim of violence is open to Baer. She must get consent to take photos, do exams and collect evidence.

It’s a tricky place to be, talking to victims of violence. Often, they are angry and scared. Often, they are ashamed and embarrassed.

“Male domestic violence victims can be very reluctant to say anything or press charges and it’s embarrassing for them,” she says. “Just the stigma.”

That happens with women, too.

Baer will never forget the young woman who was badly beaten up. She came into the ER with her husband, who insisted she had fallen. She agreed with him: Yes she had fallen.

“It was very obvious she didn’t fall. And the way I approached her, she couldn’t deny it,” Baer says. “We had a beautiful rapport and it just sickened me for days the way it all ended.”

It sickened Baer that the woman decided to go back with her husband.

“I literally had to take her and give her to her abusive husband,” Baer says. “I could not even look at him.”

It’s not Baer’s job, though, to encourage or advocate for her patients to press charges. It’s her job to give them their options. She explains what happens with a protective order, what happens if the officer comes, what happens if they decide to press charges.

“I don’t want to try to force them to do something,” she says. “But safety is a huge goal for us. We have to make sure they are safe when they leave here.”

***

Baer was 3 years old when her dad died of a heart attack a week before Christmas. He was 41, watching her 16-year-old brother’s basketball game, when he got a pain that shot up his arm.

He was rushed to the hospital, but he couldn’t be saved.

“So, I grew up thinking, ‘I’ve got to help people, because they couldn’t help my dad,’” Baer says. “I wanted to be one of those people that could save my dad.”

Baer never wavered in her career goals of becoming a nurse, not in elementary school or middle school or high school. As a teenager, she didn’t work fast food or retail or babysitting. At Roncalli High School, she worked in a nursing home.

As soon as she turned 18, she landed a job in the emergency department of an Indianapolis hospital. As she worked, she went to school to become a nurse.

After graduating with her RN degree from Marian University, Baer started at Methodist in the ER. Her entire 20-year career at Methodist has been in ER or trauma. It’s been one that gave her plenty of variety. For five years, she traveled with the IndyCar racing league. She was a flight nurse for a while. She’s never had any desire to work in any other department.

“It’s exciting. It’s fun and it’s always different,” Baer says. “And I’m comfortable with it. I’m comfortable with death. I’m comfortable with talking with families about tough stuff.”

And, now as a forensic nurse, she’s comfortable talking to patients who have just been through the darkest and worst moments of their lives.

In the aftermath of the violence and trauma, Baer is exactly the nurse patients need. She’s strong willed and no nonsense with the softest heart you’ll find.

“I’m one of those ‘nursy’ nurses that are kissy-huggy,” she says. “And I like to spend hours with them. That is the beauty of this job. You get to know them. You hear their stories. And you help them. You really hope you help them.”

-- By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health.

Reach Benbow via email dbenbow@iuhealth.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.

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