You would never have known devoted mom Dr. Laura Kittleson had a terminal illness as she made the most of her last days with her beloved family.
The popular veterinarian was fighting a losing battle with a brain tumour but she was determined to hold things together for her husband and two young children.
Dr. Kittleson didn’t feel sorry for herself and never once questioned ‘why me?’ She simply tried to carry on with her normal routine to make sure she did not disrupt the lives of those closest to her.
The 39-year-old had been diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme primary brain tumour but she refused to accept that her days were numbered.
Instead she lived each day to the full, enjoying quality time with husband Eric, 39, and children Rhys, 10 and Emma, five.
She desperately hoped she would beat her illness and return to work at Ettrick Animal Hospital.
Dr. Kittleson made good progress with her treatment and managed to hold on for nearly 18 months but died at home last month.
Mr. Kittleson of Point Shares, Pembroke, said: “It was important to Laura to spend quality time together just enjoying life.
“Although it seems quite tragic, it didn’t feel like it in our minds. We kept things pretty normal, we were just living every day like it was our last without disrupting our normal routine.
“We lived life to the fullest without doing things out of the ordinary, we did not want to change the children’s lives, we wanted to carry on as normal.
“We were celebrating her life right up until the end, it wasn’t a sad time, there were no tears, it was a pleasure to be with her.”
Dr. Kittleson, who was American, had been complaining of severe headaches for about a month when the family-of-four went on vacation to Orlando in October 2008.
They had enjoyed just one day together at Disney World when Mr. Kittleson knew he had to get his wife to the emergency room at the local hospital.
Mr. Kittleson, who is senior vice president at Iron Star Excess, said: “She was in excruciating pain, the headaches were very painful and she was nauseous.
“She was given an ultra sound and the doctor identified the brain tumour immediately.
“I was told there and then she had up to two years, but Laura never wanted to know her prognosis.”
Within an hour Dr. Kittleson was airlifted by helicopter to a speciality hospital in Orlando, then onto a hospital in St. Louis to have the mass located in the right frontal lobe of her brain removed.
Four days after surgery Dr. Kittleson returned to Wisconsin to continue her treatment near her parents who helped care for the children.
Mr. Kittleson told their children that “mamma’s sick and we have to do all we can to help her”.
He said: “Obviously it was a significant shock, it was a major moment in all our lives. You can’t help but think are the doctors wrong? Is this possible? Maybe Laura will be the exception and survive. But most of all we had to stay strong and focus on the treatment, that was our only hope.”
In an attempt to improve Dr. Kittleson’s quality of life and to achieve a longer survival time, she travelled to the University of Wisconsin Hospital to undergo radiation therapy five times a week. She also had to have another operation due to an infection.
Dr. Kittleson then underwent further treatment at The Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumour Centre at Duke in North Carolina.
Mr. Kittleson, Rhys and Emma moved to Wisconsin to be with her.
Mr. Kittleson said: “It’s hard to believe but she was fine, she never had one negative word to say about anything.
“She just accepted what was happening to her. She never ever asked ‘why me?’”
Mr. Kittleson said “the folks of Bermuda were an enormous support” to them when they were overseas. He set up a website to keep people updated on his wife’s progress.
The family returned to Bermuda in early 2009. Dr. Kittleson was unable to return to work but the tumour was kept at bay for about nine months. She continued to undergo chemotherapy and often suffered from fatigue. She also returned to North Carolina every 30 days for an MRI scan.
Mr. Kittleson said: “I went back to work and the children were at school, she wanted us to get on with our lives. We did spent a lot of time with family and friends, we had lots of people coming to visit. We’d go boating, go to the beach and go swimming.
“The real blessing was that she never lost any of her personality, it didn’t affect her motor functions, she never had bad days, she was her normal self doing normal things.”
The family did get to return to Disney World for a seven-day vacation and Dr. Kittleson also took a trip to Italy for with her girlfriends. Dr. Kittleson also helped plan the wedding of younger brother Andy who got married on the island.
Whenever anyone asked Dr. Kittleson how she was feeling, she would always answer: “I’m feeling good”.
Mr. Kittleson believes his wife’s acceptance of death was linked to her work as a veterinarian as dealing with the death of animals was an inevitable part of her chosen field.
But in mid-February this year Dr. Kittleson’s short-term memory started to go and Mr. Kittleson said he “knew at that point what was going on”.
Dr. Kittleson had one-last ditch attempt of radiation therapy but it wasn’t long before she was restricted to a wheelchair because she kept losing her balance.
By mid-March she needed 24-hour care and medical assistance at home. Dr. Kittleson praises PALS for “doing a fantastic job”.
This was when Mr. Kittleson told his children that “the medicine was not working and mommy was going to die.”
On April 24 Dr. Kittleson slipped into a coma and her family repeatedly told her how much they loved her. She died in the early hours of the morning on April 26.
Mr. Kittleson said he remains grateful that his wife never experienced any pain or suffering.
He said: “I had a lot of time to come to grips with what was happening well before it happened, it was always hanging over my head.
“But that didn’t stop the tremendous sadness. I felt bad for the children as they wouldn’t have a mother to help raise them.”
Dr. Kittleson’s funeral was at the Church of Scotland in Warwick on April 30.
Mr. Kittleson said: “We miss her and everything about her, but we’re surrounded by friends and we’re doing very well.
“We’re just trying to work our way through things as a family.”
Before her death Dr. Kittleson recorded messages for her children to listen to when they are older and Mr. Kittleson plans to put together a tribute book of people’s memories of his wife.
He said: “Our memories will always be with us. We talk a lot about her and there are pictures of her in every room of the house. She remains very much part of our lives.”
A scholarship in Dr. Kittleson’s memory has been set up at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine. Cheques can be made payable to UW Foundation and sent to the School of Veterinary Medicine at 2015 Linden Drive, Madison WI 53706. Indicate your donation is for the Dr. Laura Kittleson’s memorial scholarship.
Laura loved all animals as ‘God’s beautiful creatures’
Living on a farm surrounded by animals, Dr. Laura Kittleson knew she wanted to be a veterinarian from an early age.
As far as the mom-of-two was concerned we were all human animals living as part of the animal kingdom.
Dr. Kittleson loved all animals as “God’s beautiful creatures” from a straggly dog she saw on the street to her own pets.
She is known to have picked up toads from Bermuda’s roads and placed them under bushes so that they would be safe.
Dr. Kittleson grew up on a 350-acre farm in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, a couple hours south of Chicago, with parents Dick and Karen Nelson and younger brother Andy.
As a young girl she used to help her father with the cattle, loved to ride her horse called Licorice and was involved in an agricultural youth group.
Dr. Kittleson’s passion for animals led her to the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree was conferred in 1996.
Her husband Eric Kittleson said: “She knew what she wanted to be when she was just eight. She was very caring and had this real connection with animals.
“She was always going beyond the call of duty for animals, nothing was an inconvenience to her.”
Dr. Kittleson, lovingly known as ‘Dr. Kitt’ by colleagues, didn’t think twice about getting up in the middle of the night to care for one of the animals in her care.
It meant she was an inspiration to those who worked with her and a mentor to many trainees.
Dr. Kittleson moved to Bermuda with her family in January 2003 and worked as a veterinarian at Ettrick Animal Hospital.
Andrew Madeiros, owner of Ettrick Animal Hospital, said: “Laura was a very special person and an important part of our Ettrick team.
“Clients loved Laura and she quickly became very popular. She had a gentle way with animals and their owners. She was very dedicated and always gave 100 per cent to any case she was working on. She was easy to work with and always attended any staff outings. She avoided staff politics and was a peacemaker but still managed to have fun at work.
“She was as comfortable talking to an owner about an old dog at the end of its life, as she was a child with a new puppy. She was keen to learn and took advantage of any opportunity for continued education.”
Dr. and Mr. Kittleson attended the same church and high school but didn’t start dating until they were about 18-years-old.
They were childhood sweethearts and saw themselves as soul mates and “their love never waivered, even in the most difficult times”. The couple got married on May 26, 1998, just a week after Dr. Kittleson graduated from university, and they would have celebrated their 14th anniversary this week.
Dr. Kittleson cherished her children and said she felt blessed to have both a son and a daughter.
She liked the way Rhys, who goes to Saltus, made his own decisions rather than going with the flow. She also liked how kind and compassionate he was.
She believed Emma, who goes to Bermuda High School, was growing up as a strong and confident girl just like her mother.
Mr. Kittleson described his wife as a kind, loving, caring, positive and beautiful person who struck the right balance between motherhood and her career.
He said: “The one thing that made her unique was that I never heard her say a bad word about any person, she saw the good in everyone.”
Dr. Kittleson enjoyed spending time with family and friends, as well as scuba diving, horse riding and running.
Rosalind Collins met Dr. Kittleson through their love of horses and the two were friends for about seven years.
She said: “Laura always seemed excited to see you, there was always a smile on her face.
“She was a very calm and very genuine person; there wasn’t an evil bone in her body. She was always good to be around and we had so much fun together.”
Ms Collins fondly remembers how Dr. Kittleson used to “study everything in great detail” including restaurant menus “which she could take about an hour to look at then still have questions for the waiter!”
She said: “She was a great mom, a great wife, a dedicated professional and I was proud to call her my friend.”