family on porch step

Letting Go of What You Can't Control

From a campus proposal under UNLV's "kissing tree" to a medical crisis — how alumni Matthew and Laura Cutler have handled it all.

Matthew and Laura Cutler first encountered each other at the LDS Institute of Religion Student Center at UNLV in spring 2007. He was 24, an undergraduate here. She was 18, taking classes at the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College. Someone mentioned to Matthew that the girl he was eyeing had one leg shorter than the other. So did he. Matthew took this as a kind of sign.

“Our relationship is really obnoxious to relay out loud,” said Laura, now 29, joining her husband on speaker phone.

They met formally a few days later, after Laura heard Matthew playing the piano on campus, and they struck up a friendship. Six weeks in, he made the move. She shut him down. “I just wanted to be an 18-year-old,” she said. He sulked. They didn’t speak for two months. Then she cornered him at church and told him, basically, You’re being an idiot. We’re going to be friends again.

But that couldn’t last. They were an item by the time Laura enrolled at UNLV as an art major for the fall 2007 semester.

That February, when he was ready to make the real move — the one involving a ring — Matthew chose the weeping mulberry tree on the knoll outside the Carlson Education Building. The  campus landmark and the state's champion specimen is known as the "kissing tree." In season, it’s mushroom-shaped, as if someone had stitched together a giant leaf blanket and thrown it over a smaller tree. In winter, the leaves drop away to reveal a sculpture of tangled branches.

Matthew had taken Laura there the first time they hung out. (He claims, although Laura doubts him, that she’s the only girl he ever brought there.) He told her to close her eyes and extend her hand. This didn’t necessarily mean anything. He’d do that when he handed her a doughnut.

This time, he said, “Laura Lee, will you marry me?’”

“Of course,” she replied.

“Then,” Laura said over the phone, “we hugged and kissed and all that jazz.”

He got a job offer later that school year. Two weeks after graduation with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering, he and Laura headed to Idaho and she made plans to transfer. The newlyweds had fun for 18 months or so, camping and floating down creeks on air mattresses on weekends, and then they got down to the business of having children. A daughter named Addison came six years ago. Then another daughter, Brynlee; and a son, Declan. They wanted four; no more, no less. They figured a 12-pack of soda would split evenly, and no one would have to sit alone on amusement park rides.

When Laura was 20 weeks pregnant with a third daughter, the doctors discovered her heart was smaller than it should be. They sent her to Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. Both atria fed into only one ventricle, leaving the other severely underdeveloped. If the child survived birth, she would require multiple surgeries.

“I thought, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this. I have three very young children at home, and I’m going to have to be down in Utah for months,’” Laura said. “I had no idea if I was going to be bringing a baby home or planning a funeral.”

Carrigan Cutler was born Nov. 22, 2016. Her mother saw her for about 20 seconds before she was whisked to an intensive care unit. The first surgery came when Carrigan was a week old. Doctors inserted a shunt between the aorta and pulmonary artery to guide blood to the lungs. “Terrifying,” Laura said. She recalled relishing the sight of her daughter’s unmarked chest that first week, knowing that it would soon bear scars for life.

The baby remained in intensive care while Laura lived at a Ronald McDonald House and Matthew stayed in Idaho to work and watch their three older children. They were too young to understand fully why mom and their new sister weren’t home.

“Someone — I can’t remember who it was — taught me that if there’s something you can’t control in your life, there’s no sense in worrying about it,” Matthew said. “I would just tell myself that whenever I felt pity or felt overwhelmed.”

The hospital let Laura and Carrigan go home at six weeks. “That’s when crap really got real,” Laura said. She no longer could count on nurses and doctors to help her, and she had her other children to care for too. But the family made it through.

Carrigan underwent another surgery in May to reroute veins and arteries, and she’ll have to endure one more at age 3 or 4. But for now, she’s doing as well as anyone could have hoped.

“I think the main thing I’ve learned is that,” she interrupts herself. “See, there’s always the chance that Carrigan will go to sleep one night and not wake up because her heart will give out.  That realization keeps me more involved with my kids. When you have a baby, you kind of relinquish control over your kids’ health in a way. Accidents happen. Illness can strike at any time. So that’s something I’ve learned — not to take any moment for granted because I don’t know when it’s going to be the last one.”

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