Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here


Leaving Website

You are now leaving and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Caregiving for a Loved One With a Traumatic Injury

Geralyn and Jonathan Ritter’s relationship weathered a tragic accident and came out stronger

spinner image left geralyn ritter in the hospital after the crash right geralyn ritter now
Geralyn Ritter / Bill Bernstein

In the evening of May 12, 2015, Geralyn Ritter, 54, was eager to get home to her husband, Jonathan, 56, and three sons in New Jersey after a meeting in Washington, D.C.  As an executive at Merck & Co., Geralyn loved traveling the globe as part of her role in the humanitarian health care arena.

spinner image rescue crews on site of the twenty fifteen amtrak derailment wreckage in philadelphia pennsylvania
The derailment of Amtrack 188 killed eight and injured hundreds.
Geralyn Ritter / Bill Bernstein

As Amtrak train 188 approached Frankford Junction, the sharpest rail curve in the Northeast Corridor in Philadelphia, it began to speed up instead of slowing down. By the time the conductor pulled the emergency brake, it was too late. The train broke free from the rails, going 106 miles per hour on a curve designed for a maximum of 50. Geralyn was thrown from the train’s first car with such force that her organs were rammed up into her chest, rupturing her diaphragm and bladder, collapsing her lungs, destroying her spleen and lacerating her intestines. Her pelvis was broken in half, ribs were broken and there were multiple fractured vertebrae in her neck and back.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

Her orthopedic surgeon later said that if someone had told him about a patient coming in with her injuries, he would have asked, “When did they die?” A brief distracted moment on the conductor’s part resulted in one of the worst rail disasters in America, killing eight passengers and injuring more than 150 people. 

A spouse’s trauma

Jonathan Ritter was watching CNN when the news alert popped up. He immediately kicked into action, calling Geralyn’s phone and getting no answer. A friend drove him to the crash site and when he arrived, he was horrified at the wreckage. 

“I remember hoping that she would ‘only’ be hurt, because the alternative was unthinkable,” Jonathan says. He headed to the hospital, still uncertain if his wife was alive.

When he first saw Geralyn in the hospital bed, she was so unrecognizable that he was sure it wasn’t her until they showed him a plastic bag with a watch he had given her.

“The doctors spoke to me rapid fire as they described her injuries, the surgery and the danger she was facing,” recalls Jonathan. “I was too shocked to take it alI in, thinking of all the people who didn’t know what was happening and the calls I had to make.”

spinner image left geralyn ritter coming home from the hospital right geralyn and jonathan ritter laughing
Geralyn returning home from the hospital; Geralyn and Jonathan
Geralyn Ritter / Bill Bernstein

The isolation of healing

Over the next few weeks, Geralyn remained in intensive care, breathing through a ventilator and enduring multiple marathon surgeries as her prognosis gradually improved. But the reality of her situation wasn’t clear until she came home from the hospital and began to face her new limitations and the fact that she would not soon be returning to work. Her “job” would be the long road to recovery, and that thought began to plunge Geralyn into a depression.

“Trauma is a whole-body experience,” says Geralyn. “Regardless of which bones are broken. Nothing I had read prepared me for how it feels to wake up every morning frozen in pain or endure the suspicious glance of the pharmacist when I went to pick up my fentanyl prescription.” She would later come to learn that the experience of alienation from other people and from her own body are among the defining impacts of trauma. 

Health & Wellness

AARP® Dental Insurance Plan administered by Delta Dental Insurance Company

Dental insurance plans for members and their families

See more Health & Wellness offers >

The impact of caregiving on a marriage

One of the biggest shifts in her life was within her marriage. Geralyn and Jonathan had each gone from independent people, with their own schedules and responsibilities, to a couple having what Geralyn describes as “the worst fights of our marriage.” 

spinner image the ritter family playing cards and eating pizza
The Ritter family
Bill Bernstein

“Jonathan’s love and solace were a vital aspect of my recovery,” says Geralyn. “I’d never have made it through without my husband and the rest of my family to pray with me, clean the dirt out of my hair and make me laugh. Yet despite their tenderness and care, deep in my bones I felt starkly alone.”

The transition from high-powered executive to someone who needed to rely on others for everything was difficult. “Some of the things Jonathan had to do for me wiped away my last shreds of dignity,” she remembers. “We’d been married for 18 years, but after the accident, our relationship was pushed to new territory.” Her frustration began to bubble up as little resentments, snappish comments and impatient criticism.

A few years earlier, Jonathan had left his law practice to become an entrepreneur, working out of the home on his business. Now that Geralyn was home recovering, tensions began to swirl around his work, which was in the start-up phase.

“Now I was out of work, which made me anxious about our finances and the future,” says Geralyn. “I needed him to take care of me, but I couldn’t face the reality that this was a 24/7 undertaking. I started to fixate on all the little things he wasn’t doing. Why didn’t he notice that we’d run out of milk? Why were dirty dishes always piled in the sink over the weekend? One day he took a nap on the porch in the middle of the afternoon, and I asked why he was so tired. He was stunned, certain it was obvious he was exhausted.”

Geralyn, too, was exhausted. She was diagnosed with PTSD and experienced severe insomnia, her nervous system stuck on high alert in the primal fight or flight instinct of the brain. 

Working through tough emotions

“Most of the time I was still caught in a distant, foggy, depressed feeling,” recalls Geralyn. “I cried easily and rose to anger quickly. I ignored my mother’s texts asking how I was doing. I snapped at Jonathan, ‘You aren’t the one who is actually hurt....’ We were on parallel but utterly separate paths through the darkness, and we both felt alone.”

spinner image membership-card-w-shadow-192x134

LIMITED TIME OFFER. Join AARP for just $9 per year when you sign up for a 5-year term. Join now and get a FREE GIFT!

Jonathan saw Geralyn as ungrateful. Their entire world and household had been reordered to revolve around her, but there were many days he felt entirely left out of the equation. “The normal give and take of a marriage was all about giving to my wife in those early days, as it should have been.” He felt exhausted and unseen.

“I was actually thinking to myself what a good guy I was, what a great husband, and all I’m hearing back is ‘Why didn’t you do this?’ ” recalls Jonathan. “One of the things I came to understand was that this kind of trauma exacerbates and magnifies the things within you that weren’t so great to begin with. When your loved one is injured or ill, you don’t suddenly become a saint. Stress, pain and exhaustion can bring out the worst in all of us.”

Geralyn recalls a time when she thought the patient/caregiving experience would break their marriage. “As time wore on and months turned into years, the medical uncertainty, the ups and downs, the career uncertainty, all of it added stress.”     

But time has given the couple perspective and understanding. They have come to realize theirs were the normal reactions and emotions of a couple who has survived a trauma and come out the other side. Geralyn’s book, Bone by Bone: A Memoir of Trauma and Healing, was a chance for her and Jonathan to share their stories in hopes that they might help others. 

Forever changed

Geralyn understands now that her previous life is not her future. “There is a before and an after,” she says. “The only way forward is acceptance. In hindsight, the months of depression and sadness that followed my discharge form the hospital seem like a necessary grieving period.”  Professional counseling aided in her mental health recovery too.

The couple, now in a much better place, recently celebrated 25 years of marriage and went out to dinner at their favorite restaurant. Jonathan bought Geralyn a butterfly necklace — a  symbol she chose to represent how she has been “beautifully” transformed by the physical and emotional aspects of the accident; she gifted him a new guitar.

After a phased return to work, Geralyn is back full time and traveling the globe for her job, but that “new normal” is hard won. She lives with chronic pain, working hard to manage it without prescriptions and with ongoing physical therapy and “lots of Advil.” She has found relief in alternative forms of healing, from yoga and meditation to breath work, but trauma has forever changed her and the entire family. 

Life Lessons Learned by Geralyn and Jonathan

  • When the injuries are physical, it’s easy for people to focus on that. Recognize early on that there will be an important emotional healing journey as well. 
  • Find the balance between realism and optimism so that when you don’t hit a particular mile marker (like returning to work) on your timetable, you won’t be set up for failure.
  • Whoever you are as a couple when you are both exhausted and irritable is who you are going to be at times in the caregiving equation. Forgive each other, and don’t beat yourself up when you say the bad thing.
  • Don’t be shy about overcommunicating, whether it’s about pain or anything else that you need. We make assumptions as caregivers when our loved ones don’t speak up.

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?