After 74 years, a bond formed in tragedy endures

Charlotte Rollenhagen still remembers the first time she saw Dorothy Hutchins at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

It was 1940, and the 10-year-old girl had been badly burned when her dress caught fire on the kitchen stove in her family's Highlandtown home. Her entire back was burned, as well as part of her left leg and her left arm, which she flapped in vain to put the flames out.

"The picture of this little girl is indelibly placed in my mind," said Rollenhagen, who at the time was a rookie 21-year-old nurse. "My heart went out to her. Her burns were second- and third-degree. She needed such special care."

The girl was in great pain, lying face-down on a hospital bed with saline compresses draped across her burns. Touching the compresses caused even more pain. Rollenhagen —- then known as Charlotte Osgood — was the only nurse Hutchins would allow to change the bandages. Her recovery took nine weeks.

"She did something different. How she knew how to do it, I don't know," Hutchins said. "Here's a person who made me comfortable instead of miserable.

"The next [nurse] came and I said, 'No. Wait for Miss Osgood,' " she recalled.

Rollenhagen, 95, and Hutchins, 84, ascribe their meeting 74 years ago as divine intervention. They've maintained a special bond ever since, through marriages, careers, children and Rollenhagen's relocation across the country to Washington state.

Now that they are growing older, both feel they may not have many more chances to spend time together. So Hutchins' son helped book a trip for Rollenhagen to come to Baltimore this week. It's the first time the women have been together in person in 13 years.

Monday, as they sat on the sofa in Hutchins' Towson home and recounted their meeting and friendship, the smiles came easily for the former patient and caregiver.

In 1940, Rollenhagen was a young woman from Iowa who had moved to Maryland for nursing training at what is now Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park. The hospital had few surgical patients, so Rollenhagen was sent to Hopkins for three months — a move Hutchins feels changed her life.

"That was my first experience close to death," Hutchins said. "I felt like God sent her to me. I would say, 'Thank you, God.' She was this person sent to help me."

Rollenhagen agreed: "I like to think of it that way myself. It was ordained by God."

Rollenhagen was impressed by her patient's ability to endure the pain of such severe burns without pitying herself or asking why. Hutchins was impressed by her nurse's compassion.

The two exchanged addresses before Rollenhagen returned to Takoma Park.

Rollenhagen recalled that whenever she was dating a young man who had a car — a relatively rare possession in the 1940s — she'd ask to go visit Hutchins in Baltimore. When Hutchins got a little older, she persuaded boyfriends to drive her down to see Rollenhagen. A few times, they even double-dated.

Rollenhagen eventually moved, married and had a son, and later married a second time at age 85. Her family and career took her to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and eventually Washington state. She became a nurse-anesthetist and later a critical-care nurse.

Hutchins stayed in the Baltimore area, where she married Baltimore Sun photographer Paul Hutchins, now retired, and raised four children in Towson. She worked at General Motors before having four children and later gave tours at the old McCormick spice plant on Light Street.

Along the way, Hutchins made sure to stay in touch with her favorite nurse. Each time she gave birth, her first phone call was to Rollenhagen. The two exchanged letters and sent small gifts for special moments — Rollenhagen still has a photo with a young Hutchins at Sherwood Gardens in Guilford; Hutchins has a photo of Rollenhagen as a young nurse.

"She has such a way with words," Hutchins said, gently rubbing Rollenhagen's arm. "She always wrote me really long letters because she knows I love the way she writes."

Rollenhagen said she hasn't kept in touch with any of her other thousands of patients — just Hutchins. "She is such a faithful friend. Every time we talked, the warmth and love would come through. You'd glow after talking to her," she said.

Reunited this week, the women have filled the hours talking and laughing. After a family gathering Sunday night, they stayed up until 12:30 a.m. catching up. Rollenhagen was scheduled to leave Tuesday morning.

"It will probably be the most memorable trip of my life," she said. "I have been overwhelmed by the amount of love."

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