Carlee Curtin, a frontline health care worker in Oregon, with her Toyota that caused problems in the desert. SUBMITTED

Sometimes Hilton Head Island is the mysterious tie that binds. Things happen around the country and somehow a Hilton Head Island connection gives it meaning and relevancy.

This happened to Carlee Curtin, a frontline health care worker at Oregon Health Science University in Portland, Ore., who has spent the past months as an X-ray technician fighting to help COVID-19 patients.

On Aug. 1, Carlee drove out to camp in the high desert of eastern Oregon, near Bend, as she often does, to calm her nerves and gather strength for the daily battles. It was 104 degrees, high, dry and somewhat empty.

A couple of hours out, Carlee’s Toyota sedan hit a rock, which flattened the tire. She pulled to the side of the road, where there was no shade, and started to change the tire.

No one stopped to help. She had removed the damaged tire when the car slipped off the jack into the sand. Carlee worked feverishly to raise the car so she could install her spare tire.

Many cars passed by and no one stopped. She had no cell service. One couple yelled that she had not pulled her car far enough off the road. Other folks didn’t even look her way.

She counted the cars that passed: 16. Carlee was getting nervous – and sad.

“I had spent 6 weeks straight working with intensive care patients,” she said, “taking chest X-rays each day, in full PPE, to watch the condition of the patients’ lungs. My shoulders were actually sore from lifting patients.”

Carlee was out of ideas. She wasn’t strong enough to raise the car from the sand.

Car No. 17, a white Audi, stopped. The driver, a handsome man in his 50s, walked over to help. He got the car raised, filled beneath it with rocks and insisted that Carlee take his spare tire when he saw that hers was flat. He said his tire would work to get her to back to town. The rescue had taken over an hour.

Carlee, asked her lifesaver, Dwayne Grim, why he had stopped to help. “That’s how my mother raised me,” he said. “I’ll tell her I helped someone.” 

When Carlee returned the spare tire to Dwayne the next day, she asked him if she could write to his mother to thank her for raising a son who helped her in such meaningful way.

Turns out Dwayne was raised on the east coast and had relocated to Oregon recently. His mother, Betty Sweeney, originally from Pennsylvania, now lives in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island, after vacationing here for 30 years.

“I’m glad he stopped to help,” said Mrs. Sweeney, when told of her son’s good deed. “And I’m not surprised that he did.” She sounded as though she had heard similar comments about all three of her children.

And, here’s where the story gets really interesting! 

Carlee spent most of her childhood and high school years on Amelia Island, just 150 miles south of  Hilton Head. She moved to Atlanta in 1996 to attend Emory University and train at Grady Hospital. At the same time, her younger brother Colin Curtin relocated to Hilton Head Island to work at Island Environments Landscape Company. Carlee would visit the island often; when Colin left, her younger brother Keith then moved to Hilton Head. Her island connection seemed to come to an end when Keith moved away as well.   

Medical training completed, Carlee moved to New York City in 2009. But as luck would have it, one of Carlee’s closest friends from Emory, Susan Church, and her best friend, Terri Reiff, relocated to Hilton Head that same year to open Powerhouse Gym. Carlee’s island connection remained strong as she fondly recalls many visits riding bikes to Pool Bar Jim’s, Coco’s and the Westin.

“When Dwayne helped me that day in the Oregon desert, he reminded me of my brothers,” said Carlee. “They were the type of men who would have stopped to help. And then I found out that Dwayne’s mother lived on Hilton Head Island!”

Coincidence?  Stroke of luck?  Or just another way that Hilton Head works its magic? 

Longtime islander Karen Cerrati is a freelance writer.