Kaitlyn Van Lenten knows about overcoming challenges — even the ones her peers might not know about.
When she was 15 months old, doctors told Kaitlyn Van Lenten’s parents that she had less than a 5% chance of survival.
Diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis, Van Lenten’s blood had stopped flowing to her extremities. Her parents spotted a rash on her hip. She had a soaring fever. And then, her hands and fingertips started to turn black.
At the hospital, specialists recommended an amputation of Van Lenten’s arm up to her elbow so that she could use a prosthetic. But a primary care physician stepped in, insisting that only Van Lenten’s hand be amputated.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do anything,” Van Lenten said.
Able to retain abilities in her elbow and lower arm, Van Lenten refused to accept any limitations with her disability and went on to pursue the same activities as many of her peers — without a prosthetic.
“I was a junior lifeguard, I played lacrosse,” she said. “I’ve always been the type that says, ‘I’m going to figure out how to do it.’ My parents never let me use it as an excuse, either.”
In the fall of 2015, Van Lenten enrolled in Hillsborough Community College’s veterinary technology program. In addition to graduating from the program next week, Van Lenten is also the recipient of the 2017 Presidential Spotlight Award for the Plant City campus, awarded to students who excel in the face of adversity.
But Van Lenten, while grateful to receive the award, doesn’t view her disability as something meant to overcome.
“It’s a little weird to me to think that it’s special,” she said. “I’ve done everything my whole life with one hand. Everyone’s got their thing that makes things hard for them.”
During one of her externships, Quail Hollow Animal Hospital offered Van Lenten a weekend job in clinical pathology, a position she’s held since September.
“I love my job that I have right now,” Van Lenten said. “I’m hoping to get a job at an emergency clinic and do both.”
Last week, Van Lenten took part in the school’s pinning ceremony with her fellow vet tech graduates. With family members in town from Massachusetts for the event, Van Lenten got her vet tech insignia. And while audience members may have thought that she’d overcome her greatest battle yet, Van Lenten knew otherwise.
Following the ceremony, Van Lenten got off the stage and broke down. In the audience, someone was missing — a presence that Van Lenten felt every day.
Kevin Was Here
The number 3 is tattooed on Van Lenten’s arm. Under it is a line from ‘The Sandlot’:
Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.
Eighteen months younger than his artsy, animal-loving sister, Kevin “K.V.L.” Van Lenten was happy, extroverted, easily popular. A three-sport captain at Masconomet Regional High, Kevin Van Lenten was happiest on the basketball court, the soccer field or holding a lacrosse stick.
But while they were growing up, Kaitlyn Van Lenten thought her younger brother was a pain.
“We were mean to each other,” she said. “During high school, I was jealous because he could make friends with everyone. We shared a car while we were growing up, and he would leave it messy.”
The middle children between their brothers, Christopher and Tighe, Kaitlyn and Kevin Van Lenten eventually became closer as they got older. By the time they were in their 20s, the two were best friends.
“We started going on double dates,” she said. “I loved his friends. We would go out for drinks together.”
Kevin Van Lenten suffered a heart arrhythmia in November 2014. He was 24.
And Kaitlyn Van Lenten, who had never met a challenge she couldn’t overcome, who had never taken ‘no’ for an answer, had to find a way to live without her younger brother.
“He was a really special person,” she said. “He was the light of our family.”
Two months before his death, Kevin Van Lenten became an organ donor. Seven of his organs went to different people.
During the visiting hours at his funeral, a line nearly three hours long formed outside. The mailman from Kevin Van Lenten’s job showed up.
“That speaks to the people that he loved and who loved him,” Kaitlyn Van Lenten said.
At the time, Kaitlyn Van Lenten was teaching preschool but was unhappy with her job. After his death, she had trouble getting off of her couch for two months.
Animals — and helping them — became her solace. Long a fan of hamsters, dogs and all things furry, Kaitlyn Van Lenten enrolled at HCC to pursue the life she knew her brother would have wanted her to have.
“Getting through a day without my brother is way harder than getting through life with one hand,” she said. “But I don’t want sympathy. I don’t want people to forget that my brother existed. It breaks my heart that no one here could have met him. I just want to talk about him all the time. It’s sad that no one knows the Katie with three brothers. They know the Katie with two brothers, and one who passed away.”
She cried after her pinning ceremony, knowing her brother would have been cheering loudly in the audience.
“He would have been screaming and yelling,” she said. “He would have been super proud of me.”
Her shirt sleeve shifts and her tattoo pops into view. Even though he’s not physically with her, he’s there, watching, supporting, wanting her to keep going.
And so she does, wiping the tears from her eyes and getting ready for her next endeavor, a life worth living for her – and for Kevin.
Contact Emily Topper at [email protected].