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Originally published March 5, 2010 at 8:26 PM | Page modified March 5, 2010 at 10:52 PM

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Renton nurse's 'heart of gold' gives out on Haitian trip to provide aid

Renton's "Gentle Giant," Matthew Bouthillier, 36, died Monday of a heart attack in Haiti while on a medical mission.

Seattle Times staff reporter

He tenderly cared for a malnourished baby and just as compassionately set the shoulder of an elderly woman. Matthew Bouthillier became known by others on Medical Teams International as the Gentle Giant as he aided the suffering after the Haitian earthquake.

On Monday, Mr. Bouthillier, 36, died of cardiac arrest in Port-au-Prince after becoming dehydrated from working in oppressive heat, said his father-in-law, Bob Leppke.

The team, which had been in Haiti since Feb. 20, was complaining about the heat, dehydration and diarrhea, Leppke said. But it was a medical mission and the team watched out for each other. At one point, Mr. Bouthillier, of Renton, who did not have a heart condition, had been given intravenous fluids to keep him hydrated, Leppke said.

The conditions in Haiti, he said, were very difficult and "Matt knew that going in," he said.

The nonprofit Christian medical relief group's Web site http://www.medicalteams.org/sf/Home.aspx is collecting tributes written by those who worked alongside Mr. Bouthillier in Haiti.

"We had only known Matt a week, but he rapidly became a favorite of our team," wrote volunteer Fran Hesser. "A big man, we swiftly started calling him the Gentle Giant... At our clinics with the U.S. 82nd Airborne, he worked triage and did wound care. I watched him gently manipulate the shoulder of an older woman who had a wall collapse on her in the earthquake. She had suffered with a broken clavicle for six weeks before being able to get medical care at our clinic."

Wrote Janey Pinneo, a nurse on his team: "Matt and I had several conversations, the most meaningful being the depth of his faith and love for Jesus. He had a heart of gold, was passionate about his nursing work and obviously loved serving others."

Mr. Bouthillier's mother, Dale Bouthillier, wrote that his death should in no way discourage others from going on medical missions to Haiti.

Leppke said the family has been touched by just how much his son-in-law meant not only to the people he served but to his colleagues.

"We probably didn't realize how awesome he was or the profound impact he had on people," Leppke said.

Mr. Bouthillier grew up in Connecticut and Texas, and eventually came to the Northwest and attended Pacific Lutheran University, where he graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in nursing.

While there, he met his wife, Melissa, who also was enrolled in the school of nursing. She credits him with helping her through some of the rigors of the program, her father said.

Mr. Bouthillier also was in the ROTC and served as a captain in the U.S. Army at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.

Leppke recalled meeting his future son-in-law, "a very husky 6-foot-3," for the first time. "He was a big guy and I'm shorter, so it was a little overwhelming at first." The family opened their hearts to him "and he fit right in."

The Bouthilliers married July 12, 1998, and settled in Renton. They have two sons, Brian, 7, and Logan, 4. After leaving the military, Mr. Bouthillier became an emergency-room nurse at Swedish Medical Center in Issaquah.

He was an avid hiker and outdoorsman, his father-in-law said. He loved the challenge of helping people in need, and on another occasion he took his vacation to go to Honduras on a medical mission.

In addition to his wife, children and his mother, Mr. Bouthillier is survived by his sisters: Gail Garcia, of San Antonio, Texas; Kris Gauthier, of Zionsville, Ind.; Catherine Menounos and Lynn Bouthillier, both of Brooklyn, Conn. He was preceded in death by his brother, Michael Bouthillier, and his father, Dr. Joseph Bouthillier.

A public memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. next Saturday at the East Renton Community Church, 13232 156th Ave. S.E., Renton.

A Matthew Bouthillier Children's Fund has been set up to benefit his children. Contributions may be made at any branch of U.S. Bank.

Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or nbartley@seattletimes.com

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