Virginia Lynch: Pioneer in Forensic Nursing

In 1982, Virginia Lynch, MSN, RN, FCNS, FAAN, FAAFS, had an opportunity to visit a crime laboratory. During the visit, she realized that she and her colleagues had been inadvertently destroying important evidence when crime victims came into their emergency department (ED). It was this moment that led Virginia to learn more about forensic science. In doing so, she began a journey that created a new nursing specialty.

At the time, Virginia was majoring in nursing at Texas Christian University. While rotating through the ED to complete a component of her undergraduate BSN degree, she came in contact with crime victims, particularly rape victims. When she asked a police officer if the rapist would likely be caught, he said no because the evidence had been destroyed. Virginia knew that specimens and clothing were sometimes discarded instead of being properly turned over to investigators. That’s when she called the crime laboratory. “It was a turning point in my nursing perspective,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why we weren’t teaching this in nursing and medical schools.”

Virginia soon learned that, at the time, no medical school in North America required the study of forensic medicine. Only a few offered forensic medicine as an elective because only a few physicians want to work in this specialty. Virginia believes that the few who choose this specialty do so because they have a special calling for forensic medicine.

A Late Start

As a teenager, Virginia already knew that she wanted to be a surgical nurse. But it wasn’t until her oldest daughter went to college that she had the opportunity to go to nursing school. While finishing her final course in psychiatric nursing, she chose the Tarrant County Rape Crisis Program for her clinical practicum.  When a sexual assault occurred, she was called into the hospital. Working with sexual violence victims led Virginia to initiate the first rape crisis program in Parker County. Later, as a graduate nursing student, she became a credentialed sexual assault nurse examiner in Fort Worth’s first training program.

Meanwhile, the landscape of forensic science began to change. Hospitals in other parts of the country were having nurses perform rape exams, which began a trend of involving nurses into forensic medicine. Nurses were a perfect fit because they are educated in anatomy and physiology, chemistry and pathophysiology. They are attentive to detail and skilled in documentation and psychosocial intervention when working with survivors or grieving family members. Nurses are also trained in the identification of trauma, sterile technique, and proper specimen handling – all skills that translate well in the role of the forensic nurse examiner. Around the same time, a medical examiner in Canada began to employ nurses as death scene investigators. He, too, believed that nurses were the best resource for medical death investigations.

A Passion for Forensics

After earning her undergraduate degree, Virginia’s interest in forensic science grew to a passion for more knowledge. She initiated an independent study in death investigation and postmortem procedures at the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences and the Dallas County Medical Examiner’s office. Two years later, the Tarrant-Parker County medical examiner’s office appointed Virginia to the position of death scene investigator. She was the first nurse and first woman to fill the role of a duly authorized deputy of the chief medical examiner in this jurisdiction.

When Virginia was ready to pursue a master’s degree she learned that forensic science programs were not available for nurses. She decided to write her own graduate program and presented it to the graduate dean at the University of Texas-Arlington. She had already contacted experts in the fields of law, forensic science, and pathology who had offered to teach the courses. Six months later, the curriculum committee accepted her proposal—and the dean invited her to become the first student. Her thesis included research that surveyed ED nurses on their knowledge of forensic cases. It started the evolution of a scientific field that came to be known as forensic nursing science, a term crafted by Virginia, which represents the fusion of nursing science and forensic science.

Founding the International Association of Forensic Nursing

Along the way, Virginia began writing about forensic nursing, sharing her ideas long before it was a nursing specialty. She became a member of the prestigious American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). The organization was the first to ask her to define the discipline of forensic nursing and later recognized it as a scientific discipline in 1991. Then, in 1992, Virginia was invited to attend the founding meeting of a group of nurses involved in a developing movement to educate nurses to conduct sexual assault examinations. “The meeting gave me the opportunity to propose that we not limit membership to sexual assault examiners but to include all nurses whose practice involves health care and the legal sciences,” she recalls. The group agreed, and the organization became known as the International Association of Forensic Nursing (IAFN). Membership has since grown to more than 3,000 in 27 countries. Virginia became the organization’s founding president.

After the IAFN was established, Virginia contacted the American Nursing Association (ANA) Congress of Nursing Practice to determine how to offer certification for forensic nurses. She learned that forensic nursing must first be recognized as a nursing specialty, so Virginia and her colleagues set to work fulfilling the ANA requirements. Forensic nursing was officially recognized by the ANA Congress of Nursing Practice in 1995. The first forensic nurses were certified as adult and/or pediatric sexual assault nurse examiners in 1996. More than 1,200 certifications have been awarded since as forensic nursing certification has broadened to encompass forensic care for all victims of crime and abuse, traumatic accidents, and death investigations.

Scholar and International Consultant

In 1995, Virginia moved to Colorado to teach forensic nursing and forensic health science at Beth El College of Nursing and Health Sciences, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. During this time, her forensic nursing focus became international. She received a Fulbright scholarship to teach specialty courses as part of a Global Health Initiative in India for six months. She has since introduced forensic nursing as a scientific discipline in 32 countries.

As the founding president of the IAFN, Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, and Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, Virginia has been recognized as an American pioneer in nursing. Today, she is an international consultant, independent scholar, and the author of numerous technical articles and papers. She is also the editor of the first forensic textbook for nurses and serves as a visiting scholar in various programs across the U.S. and around the globe. While introducing the global concept of forensic nursing practice to health and justice systems in many countries, she includes a major focus on universal and individual human rights as an integral part of this emerging field.

Virginia has also received many awards for her work, including the Florence Nightingale Special Recognition Award for Human Caring given by the Colorado Springs Chapter of the American Nurses Association. She has received distinguished alumni awards from Texas Christian University, University of Texas (Arlington and Weatherford), and Texas Senior High School for her service as a death scene investigator, sexual assault nurse, her original research in forensic nursing, and the scientific development of the discipline. She is a diplomate of the American College of Forensic Examiners and has been named one of the 250 most significant forensic scientists in Aggrawal’s Internet Journal of Forensic Medicine. Perhaps her most rewarding tribute has been the IAFN Virginia A. Lynch Pioneer Award, named in her honor, which recognizes those who advance the forensic nursing specialty.

As a specialty, forensic nursing continues to evolve. It is perhaps the fastest growing nursing specialty in the world with many subspecialties—including forensic psychiatric nurse, nurse death investigator, sexual assault nurse examiner, forensic nurse educator, and forensic correctional nurse among others. More roles continue to develop that are offering new opportunities for nursing professionals. Educational opportunities in forensic nursing are expanding, too, with certificate, MSN, and doctoral degrees and clinical nurse specialist and nurse practitioner programs now available.

Virginia may be recognized as the founder of forensic nursing, but she is quick to explain that she didn’t set out to develop a forensic nursing specialty. As she puts it, “It happened to me while I was on my way somewhere else.” She describes it as an “evolution of knowledge” that brought her to introduce the concept of a forensic specialist in nursing and to develop an international career—a journey that didn’t begin until she was 42 years old. “It is empirical evidence,” she says, “that you can overcome obstacles and become whatever you want to be at numerous points throughout your life.” Time has not diminished her passion for the science of forensic nursing as she continues to lead in the evolution of health care’s direct response to violence and to explore the future potential of this science.

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