Former courier nurse to talk about experiences

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In a luxury passenger train buzzing with noisy passengers, screaming children and bustling attendants, Rita Smith bustled around tending to sick passengers as a Santa Fe courier nurse.

The retired nurse describes her experience on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway as an exciting and fun time in her life.

"It's something that I never want to forget," she said.

The Newark, Ill., resident will be sharing her adventures as a courier nurse in an exclusive presentation, "My experiences as a courier nurse with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway," at 1 p.m., Saturday, June 16, at the Harvey House Museum in Belen.

Two of Smith's uniforms, as well as travel brochures, timetables, courier nurse passenger forms and itinerary information, will be donated to the museum after the presentation.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the railway employed registered nurses, known as couriers, to take care of passenger's medical needs.

Smith's normal 40-hour route transported her cross country from Chicago, Ill., to Los Angeles, Calif., on El Capitan and Superchief passenger trains three times a month. She also rode from Chicago, Ill., to San Francisco, Calif., on the San Francisco Chief, which stopped in Belen.

Her shifts stretched from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., but as the single nurse on the train, she was sought out at all times of the day or night to tend to up to 600 passengers.

"Sometimes I felt like I walked from Chicago to Los Angeles or San Francisco, because we were constantly doing something," Smith said.

In January 1969, she mended broken bones and other injuries after a train derailment left the train tilted at a 45-degree angle. At 4 a.m. that morning, Smith was woken by the sound of rumbling gravel outside of her lower level room.

"I thought, 'Oh, my God. How come it's so noisy?' It never dawned on me that we had actually left the track and we were flying through some corn field in Kansas at 90 miles an hour," she said.

Even during times of emergency, Smith was expected to be fully suited in her navy blue cap, high heels, coat and hand made jacket and skirt.

But Smith wasn't just called on for passenger emergencies.

"I got called for anything that was wrong on the train," she said with a chuckle.

Smith recalls being woken in the dead of the night to tend to a large sick dog, and another time to revive a dead, colorful Hawaiian fish.

As part of her duties, Smith also aided dining crews, acted as a tour guide and did whatever else was needed.

At first, Smith didn't know what a courier nurse was after being a registered nurse for five years until one of her coworkers, also a courier nurse, told her.

"She told me about it and how you traveled — and I love to travel, I always have — and I thought, 'Oh, that would be so cool,'" she said.

Smith worked as a courier nurse on and off from 1967 until 1971 when the railway changed ownership to Amtrak, who abolished the position.


-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.