Our Staff, Our Stories: Darin Kittleson

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The youngest of six siblings, Darin Kittleson grew up on a ranch and farm in the northeastern Montana town of Glasgow — deemed the “middle of nowhere” by a Washington Post article because of its remoteness.

“I don’t remember not having chores,” says Darin, a clinical specialty representative for Mayo Clinic Laboratories’ Therapeutics and Renal Diagnostics Division. “We had about 120 head of cattle, so we did everything around that from fencing in the summertime to cutting, baling, and stacking hay for the winter. Then on the farm side, we primarily grew spring wheat, which meant busy spring planting, fall harvesting, and maintaining all the equipment.”

Darin Kittleson and his wife

His mother also kept a 2-acre garden, which supplied a wealth of canned goods. Almost everything the family ate came off their land. Hence, the hard work never stopped. “You basically worked seven days a week, except for church on Sunday mornings,” Darin says. “We were happy when it rained because you couldn’t do much work. It’s a hard life but a good life.” 

Darin eventually left farm life to attend Montana State University in Billings, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing. Out of college, he worked for Nabisco as an account manager, then as a sales rep for several pharmaceutical companies, before being hired by Mayo Clinic about 20 months ago. These days, he and his wife, Anne, are empty nesters, living on a 16-acre homestead in Great Falls, Montana. Their two children are both off studying music — Jake in his third year at Montana State University, and Hannah just beginning her first year at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

Darin is Mayo Clinic Laboratories only employee based in Montana. As an avid fisherman, boater, camper, and mountain biker, he is hopelessly bonded to Big Sky Country.

No ordinary day

An enthusiastic outdoorsman, Darin often takes his “side by side” (aka utility task vehicle) with him on camping trips to get deeper into rough country where his truck can’t go. The vehicle also comes in handy for tasks around his land, like hauling and snow plowing. And it served him particularly well on what seemed like an ordinary day of chores that turned out to be the day he saved a neighbor’s life.

The trusty side by side Darin was using to plow snow on the day he saved his neighbor's life.

It was Oct. 18, 2020. Darin was plowing snow with his side by side and decided to clear his neighbor’s drive, too. The neighbor, Bill, had just bought his own side by side, so Darin decided to stop in and compare machines. No one answered the front door. After walking around to the back, he heard Bill’s wife yelling for him, saying she needed help.

“So I hurry inside, run upstairs, and there’s Bill in his recliner as gray as gray can be — no signs of life,” Darin recalls. “I told his wife to call 911 and started CPR on him. I’m bouncing hard on his chest but there was still nothing. I was sure he was gone.”

Mind you, Darin had never done CPR before, nor had he taken a class. He simply followed something he’d heard once: do chest compressions to the old disco song "Staying Alive." The 911 operator instructed them to get Bill on the floor. After that, Darin continued chest compressions. “By this time, I’m bouncing on him enough where I’m getting some little gasps from him,” Darin says. “The operator told me to go faster, and he said, ‘If something starts cracking, that’s fine, just push hard.’ I was really giving it all I had.”

Within about eight minutes, another neighbor, Dr. Dustin Stuart, arrived and took over CPR. Within 10 minutes, an emergency crew was on the scene. “I think they ended up shocking Bill’s chest about five times,” Darin says. While the crew worked on Bill and got him stable enough to move, Darin recruited his wife to help him shovel a path for the gurney. Bill was admitted to hospital, where he stayed for five days. “We got him out of the hospital on a Thursday, and when Bill found out I’d saved his life, he said, ‘I guess I owe you a beer.’”

A new CPR training advocate

In June, Dr. Stuart, who runs the emergency room at the hospital, appeared on Darin’s doorstep asking if he could present him with an award, via a public ceremony, for his heroic deed.

“He wanted to make a big deal out of it, and I said, ‘Oh, no thanks. That’s not the reason I did it,’” Darin recounts. But then Dr. Stuart explained that a ceremony like this would help get more people in the community to learn CPR. “He said, ‘There are so many calls like this we go to that are not successful.’ He told me that my jumping in to do chest compressions is the reason Bill survived.” 

In that light, Darin agreed to receive an award at the fire station. The award ceremony was covered by a local TV news crew. Darin is now an advocate for CPR training. “I tell my friends, ‘Even if you don’t have time for a CPR class, how many times a week do you watch YouTube?’” he says. “At least learn CPR from YouTube. That’s pretty simple.”

Educating outlying hospitals and clinics

In his work as a clinical specialty representative for Mayo Clinic Labs, Darin also serves as an advocate for improving health care. He focuses on Wyoming and Montana where he promotes the under-utilized tests Mayo Clinic Laboratories offer to clients in rural areas who, without Darin’s help, might not know about them otherwise. 

“With our division, we look for a pathway, a way for these clients to get their therapeutic and renal testing into Mayo,” he says. “I have a huge opportunity in Montana, at the Billings Clinic, which is our biggest client in the state. They have an extensive outreach program that includes 20-plus small hospitals and clinics that refer to them, and they in turn refer to us. I’ve been working with their outreach coordinator to bring physician education about our tests to these rural clients.” 

An avid outdoorsman, Darin enjoys fishing, hunting and camping.

To that end, Darin travels to small clinics and hospitals and meets with medical staff one-on-one. Although his division has several hundred renal tests, Darin focuses on 14 to 16 of them. He digs into the client data and targets the tests clients aren’t using, thus missing out on faster turnaround times, better utilization, and greater patient benefits.

One such test is a super saturation assay — a “24-hour urine catch test” — that is given to a patient after he or she has passed a kidney stone or has had one surgically removed. The test helps physicians understand and identify the reason their patients are forming stones, so they can offer more effective preventive treatments. “Because of their rural locations, a lot of these health care providers are just not getting the education that they should be about these tests,” Darin says. “So it makes you feel good to know you’re making a difference.”

Indeed, educating medical staff from the same kind of rural areas where Darin grew up is most rewarding for him. And although he’s been with Mayo Clinic less than two years, he feels the same way about the institution as he does about Montana: “It’s a very special place,” he says.

Chris Bahnsen

Chris J. Bahnsen covers emerging research and discovery for Mayo Clinic Laboratories. His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Smithsonian Air & Space. He divides his time between Southern California and Northwest Ohio.