Randolph Nurse Killed in Car Crash
DHMC nurse Carol Rittenhouse, of Randolph Center, surveys the damage to Port-au-Prince in January 2010. Rittenhouse was killed Friday when her car struck a tree. (Valley News - Jason Johns)
Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center nurses haul their gear onto a plane on Jan. 18, 2010, on their way to Haiti to help with the relief effort after the earthquake. From left are Carol Rittenhouse, of Randolph Center, Emma Batchelder, of Piermont, and Rachel Allen, of Wilder. Rittenhouse was killed in a car crash in Randolph on Friday night. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
DHMC nurse Carol Rittenhouse with the young man whose jaw was broken in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. “Carol kind of stepped in and cared for him, more than just as a nurse, but as if he was her son,” said nurse Jen Clark. (Deb Stephens photograph)
Randolph — A nurse who traveled to Haiti to help victims of the catastrophic 2010 earthquake died Friday evening when her car hit a tree in Randolph, police said.
Vermont State Police received a call of the single-car crash shortly after 6 p.m. on Friday and found Carol Rittenhouse, 52, who worked in several nursing positions at both Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and Gifford Medical Center, unresponsive at the scene.
According to police, Rittenhouse was heading northwest on Davis Road, which is off Route 14, when she lost control of her 2000 Subaru. Speed was a “contributing factor,” police said, and the crash is under investigation. Rittenhouse was not wearing her seatbelt, police said.
Arrangements for Rittenhouse are being handled by Day Funeral Home in Randolph. Messages left for Gifford and DHMC representatives were not returned yesterday. Attempts to reach family members were unsuccessful.
Yesterday, colleagues remembered Rittenhouse as an extremely competent and caring nurse who was part of a team of eight medical professionals who went to Haiti to offer aid following the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
“She was very warm, exceptionally skilled,” said Dr. Jim Geiling, who led the team of medical personnel. “With all the smells and the noises and the heat and all that stuff, nothing fazed her.”
When reached by telephone yesterday, Geiling, chief of medicine at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, said he had been looking over photographs from the Haiti trip several days before. He said he remembered Rittenhouse’s “big smile” most of all.
Jen Clark, a nurse in the intensive care unit at DHMC, said she first met Rittenhouse in a hectic organizational meeting the day before they both set out for the Caribbean. The next day, in Haiti, they went straight to work. That night was their first chance to get to know each other, Clark said.
She learned that Rittenhouse, besides her emergency room work, was also a nurse in the post-anesthesia care unit — positions that made her well-suited for the shocking sights of post-destruction Haiti.
“She was always very calm and collected,” Clark said. “She always kept a very calm demeanor. She was a very in-control type person.”
Still, though, the country’s condition was rattling. Clark remembered a Valley News photograph of Rittenhouse staring out the window of a bus at the ruins of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, which at the time had no power.
“I think she was in shock to see the country in the state it was, much like the rest of us,” Clark said.
Former Valley News staff writer Gregory Trotter, now a reporter with the Chicago Tribune, accompanied Rittenhouse and the DHMC team to Haiti in January 2010.
“Like the most of the other nurses in that first Dartmouth team dispatched to Port-au-Prince, I think Carol was deeply affected by her experience there,” Trotter wrote in a email yesterday. “They worked long hours in a hot tent, saving lives at a rapid pace. … Many of their patients were on death’s door. They were able to save some.
“We were only with them a few days, so I can’t say I knew Carol well,” Trotter wrote. “But she was an extremely nice lady and, from what I could tell, an excellent nurse. I could see her time in Haiti meant a lot to her. I recall her sitting with a 15-year-old boy, who had his jaw wired shut because it was fractured. He was separated from his family and couldn’t speak. Carol sat with him and gave him water and talked to him, in between caring for other patients. Her heart was reaching out to that boy. She gave him some measure of comfort.”
Some of the doctors and nurses on that Haiti trip also remembered the boy, and how Rittenhouse took to him.
“Carol kind of stepped in and cared for him, more than just as a nurse, but as if he was her son,” said Clark.
Geiling remembered the boy too, especially from a picture taken of him and Rittenhouse in which he was wearing a Dartmouth T-shirt and “beaming the best he can,” as Rittenhouse held her arm around him.
After the team returned from Haiti, Rittenhouse stayed in touch with some of the people they met there, her colleagues said, including their translator for the trip, and, for a time, that boy.
“She managed to keep track of him by leaving her home address and phone number with volunteers who took over our tent after we left, and I heard that she found out he had been sent to a rehab facility,” nurse Deb Stephens wrote in an email.
“She went back several times with volunteers from Gifford hospital … but I don’t think she ever found him again.”
Clark said she would occasionally see Rittenhouse in the hallways of their hospital. And though the two didn’t keep in constant touch, she said, it never seemed to matter.
“She was one of those people,” Clark said. “When you saw her, it was like nothing had changed.”
In January, three years after the first Haiti trip, Rittenhouse sent an email to the group, whose members now work as far away as North Carolina, Geiling said. She was responding to a message he had sent out, commemorating the three-year anniversary.
In her email, Rittenhouse mentioned that she had just recently heard from the group’s interpreter, Orima, with whom she had kept in touch. She wrote that she had been back to the Haiti three times since going with the group, and felt that although progress was occurring, it was going very slowly.
“Wish I could do more,” Rittenhouse wrote. “Planning to return in June.”
Jon Wolper can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3248.