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A Life: Diane Kittredge, 1946-2018; ‘She Showed Us How to Survive Even Through Adversity’

  • Diane Kittredge with her grandchildren Gabriel, left, and Alice Rettig while sledding in the backyard of her Norwich, Vt., home in February 2015. (Family photograph)

  • Diane Kittredge and Alan Rozycki are married at the Lake Morey Resort in Fairlee, Vt., in 2006. (Family photograph)

  • Diane Kittredge on her high school tennis team in Winchester, Mass., in the 1960s. (Family photograph)

  • Diane Kittredge with grandson Jason Shane, 6, at the Byrne Palliative Care Center in Lebanon, N.H., shortly before she died on June 4. 2018. (Family photograph)



Valley News Columnist
Sunday, September 09, 2018

Norwich — When Diane Kittredge applied to Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s, she was asked in her interview about her family plans.

As in, was she planning to have one?

I’m not sure of the answer she gave. But I know the question — and the not-so-subtle implication that a woman couldn’t possibly practice medicine and handle motherhood at the same time — didn’t deter her.

After graduating from Harvard Medical School in 1972 (when women made up only 10 percent of the class), Kittredge embarked on a career as a pediatrician and educator all the while raising three children — much of the time as a single mom.

Kittredge spent a good portion of her career at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center where she practiced from 1997 until her retirement in 2012. She was a faculty member at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine as well.

Kittredge died at her home in Norwich on June 4 — a day after her 72nd birthday — some 34 years after being diagnosed with breast cancer for what wouldn’t be the last time.

“She showed what it meant to live with breast cancer and that it could be done,” said her son, Chris Rettig, now a social studies teacher in Cambridge, Mass. “It didn’t change her. She showed us how to survive even through adversity.”

Kittredge, who grew up in Winchester, Mass., was accustomed to overcoming adversity. As an adolescent, she developed scoliosis — a curvature of the spine — that forced her to wear a metal back brace.

Kittredge could remove the brace when playing sports. “So, her solution? She played as many sports as possible,” Lucia Kittredge recalled during the June 22 memorial service for her older sister at the Norwich Congregational Church. “She played football with the boys in the neighborhood, and had scrapes on her knees to prove it.”

The oldest of Jane and Robert Kittredge’s five children, Diane became an avid tennis player and skier. As a student at Smith College in 1966, she and a classmate rode more than 100 miles on three-speed bicycles from the campus in Northampton, Mass., to her home in suburban Boston. They had “no repair equipment, very little food and water, and, of course, no cell phones,” said her riding partner, Claire Barker.

“Diane was just plain fun to be around, with a ready laugh and enthusiasm for college life,” said Barker, who spoke at the memorial service. “She certainly studied hard, but she also was game for things like goofy dorm skits and mugging for a camera.”

A biochemistry major at Smith, Kittredge was invited to spend a month in Williams College’s winter study program. She’s believed to be the first woman to study at Williams, which didn’t go co-ed until 1971.

“She was like their test case,” said Lucia, who recalled her sister having to live with a Williams professor and his wife because the school didn’t have anywhere else to put her.

At the memorial service, Caitlyn Shane said her grandmother “opened the door for other women to go to Williams in the future — like her own daughter.”

Anna Shane, Caitlyn’s mom, graduated from Williams in 1998. Like her two younger siblings, Shane steered away from a career in medicine. After watching their parents, both physicians, field late-night phone calls and return to the hospital at all hours, she and her siblings had their fill of medicine, Shane joked.

“My mom would do the grocery shopping at seven in the morning, before we even went to school,” said Shane, who lives in Chicago with her husband, Adam, and their four children.

Kittredge and her husband, Philip Rettig, were still married and living in Oklahoma City, Ok., when she was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 38. Three years later, it returned.

“Before any of us started high school, Mom had faced tremendous challenges — two rounds of breast cancer and a marriage that ended in divorce,” her son, Chris, told the large crowd that filled Norwich Congregational’s sanctuary pews and balcony. “She managed to keep parenting us with love, to keep working, and to keep smiling through all that.

“She was a survivor and lived her life fully.”

With her two oldest children in college, Kittredge, who was divorced at that point, was eager to return to the East Coast to be closer to her aging parents.

DHMC was looking for a future pediatric section chief, whose duties included overseeing residents in the department.

Kittredge, past president of the 2,500-member Academic Pediatric Association, got the job. She took over for Alan Rozycki, a well-known Upper Valley pediatrician who, after relinquishing his administrative duties, continued to practice at DHMC.

After Kittredge arrived in 1997, Rozycki offered to show her around the Dartmouth College campus. Rozycki, a Dartmouth football standout who graduated in 1961, was recently divorced. During the tour, Rozycki suggested they stop at the student center for a game of ping-pong.

“She beat me,” Rozycki said.

He then suggested another type of game. “She beat me in pool, too,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, he asked Kittredge out on a formal date. She agreed, but it would have to include attending a Hanover High School girls’ soccer match. Her daughter Elizabeth was the team’s goalie.

The relationship blossomed — partly because of their mutual respect for each other’s talents as physicians. “Diane was the ultimate team player who made everyone around her better,” Rozycki said.

They were married in 2006.

Since his wife’s death, Rozycki has heard from scores of her colleagues and patients. “She was always supportive of the nurses and taught the residents the value of nurses,” a nurse wrote. “She was a great pediatrician. I watched her deal with some pretty difficult cases and she always did it with kindness and love.”

In the late 1990s, my wife, Wendy, and I moved from Florida to the Upper Valley. With two young children, finding a pediatrician was something of a priority. We (actually, it was mostly Wendy) asked around. One name kept coming up: Dr. Kittredge.

She was known for being down-to-earth and a good listener. She was the go-to pediatrician in the Upper Valley.

This summer, Rozycki received a letter from a mother with two daughters who had Kittredge for their pediatrician. One time when the woman took one of her daughters to be treated for a minor illness Kittredge was unavailable. When the male physician who treated her daughter left the exam room, the girl asked, “Was that the doctor?”

Yes, her mother replied.

“I didn’t know men could be doctors,” the daughter said.

“Diane did incredible things and made them seem easy and normal,” the woman wrote. “She passed that gift onto my daughters who will always believe that women can be doctors and leaders and whatever else they put their energies toward.”

A colleague described Kittredge as a “quiet pioneer for women in medicine.”

Kittredge wanted to work in an academic setting, such as DHMC, but she didn’t want to give up seeing patients. “She was old-school,” Rozycki said. “She didn’t believe you could be a good teacher unless you were practicing.”

After she retired in 2012, she kept her hand in teaching by mentoring residents who were struggling with their bedside manner. Kittredge and her youngest daughter, Elizabeth, a social worker in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, would often “talk through” what that meant in both of their fields.

“My mother would say it’s much easier to teach the skills of diagnosis than teaching how to communicate and make families feel heard,” her daughter said.

After marrying Rozycki, Kittredge’s own family doubled in size. They each had three adult children and over the years their number of grandchildren grew to 11.

“We worked hard to blend the family,” Rozycki said. There were summer outings to her family’s lake house in Maine. They took ski trips to northern New Hampshire. Kids and grandkids descended upon Norwich for holidays.

Kittredge’s health was good for a long time, her husband told me. But three years ago, the cancer came roaring back, attacking her lungs and back. Radiation treatments helped, “but we knew there was trouble ahead,” Rozycki said.

By this spring, she had lost 16 pounds. Months of aggressive treatments had taken their toll. “She knew when to stop the chemo treatments, when her body truly couldn’t take one more attempt at fixing itself,” said her son, Chris.

In late May, her family congregated at DHMC’s Byrne Palliative Care Center. They held a Popsicle party, baked cookies in the center’s kitchen and took lots of pictures.

One day, nine of Kittredge’s grandchildren, ranging in ages from 3 to 12, huddled around her bedside.

“Guys, do you have any questions?” Rozycki asked.

The room remained quiet until 10-year-old Sachy Rozycki, who called his grandmother by a special name, broke the silence.

“Gamu, does it make you sad to die?” the boy asked.

Kittredge thought for a moment. “No, not really,” she said, “because so many good things have happened to me in my lifetime and I have watched such beautiful children as all of you grow up to be so nice.”

Sachy then asked, “Gamu, does it hurt to die?”

Again, Kittredge took a moment. “I don’t know, Sachy, I haven’t died yet,” she said with a smile.

“She always had a good sense of humor, even if it was a little wry,” her husband said.

It was Kittredge’s wish to spend her final days in the hilltop house that she shared with Rozycki, overlooking the Connecticut River. Her bed was placed in front of the picture window with a view of the backyard.

On her 72nd birthday, her family brought out birthday hats and munched on cupcakes. “Mom was so tired that last week, and not usually up for big groups in her room, but she humored us and even enjoyed us,” said her son, Chris. “By letting us share these moments with her, she taught us how to be there together.”

Not long after his wife’s death, a friend — another physician — reminded Rozycki of how, as endings go, Kittredge’s was one to learn from.

“She died with dignity, surrounded with love from family and friends. Being at home, gazing out into her garden.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.