Summer 2015

The Veterinarian and Her Friend

Ever grateful for the care of her beloved pets, Audrey Noreen Koller bequeaths $2.1 million to Foster Hospital

By Laura Ferguson

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Mary Labato took in Audrey Noreen Koller’s pets, including her cat, Sammy, when her client and friend could no longer care for them. Photo: Matthew Healey

Mary Labato, V83, was doing her residency at a Boston veterinary hospital in 1985 when she first met Audrey Noreen Koller. Labato treated Koller’s golden retriever, Andrew, for an inflammation of the balance system that made it hard for the dog to walk.

The young veterinarian was impressed by Koller’s dedication to her pet. “She lived alone in a fourth-floor walk-up in Cambridge, and every day she guided him up and down those stairs by herself,” recalls Labato, now a clinical professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.

Later, Labato treated Koller’s cat, Thomas, for a hairball lodged in his stomach. When Labato began working at Tufts, Koller started bringing her pets to the Foster Hospital for Small Animals. Labato gave them their annual checkups and successfully treated another golden retriever, Frederick, for cancer of the spleen.

Koller remained loyal to Labato and to Cummings School for more than two decades, her gratitude growing with each subsequent pet, along with her friendship with Labato.

Still, her generosity to the school came as a stunning surprise. After she died in 2013 at age 83, Tufts learned that Koller had bequeathed $2.1 million to the Foster Hospital.

Audrey Noreen Koller with 8-week-old  Jason in 2000.

Audrey Noreen Koller with 8-week-old Jason in 2000.

“We were thrilled to learn of this extraordinary gift, particularly as we embark on the hospital’s renovation,” said Dean Deborah Kochevar. “Such generosity will help us sustain and strengthen the high standards Ms. Koller had come to associate with the Foster Hospital. Dedicated and talented clinicians like Dr. Labato who go above and beyond are the hallmark of Cummings School care.” A $9.5 million renovation of the hospital will be completed next year (see “Best in Show”).

Koller, a 1950 Radcliffe graduate, came from a family of academics and scientists. Her grandfather, Albert Mathews, was a noted biologist who did summer research at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Koller was a do-it-yourselfer, a woman who changed the oil in her car, favored Oxford shirts, jeans and sneakers, and lived simply but fully. She worked at Harvard Medical School for more than 40 years, most of them as registrar, before retiring in 1996.

Koller treated her pets like family, taking them with her on vacations to the Cape, Labato says. The two women became closer friends when they adopted dogs of the same age, and the dogs attended puppy class together.

In 2010 Koller fell and was hospitalized. Her dog, Jason, was temporarily placed with a neighbor, but her cat, Sammy, was eluding capture in the apartment. Koller’s lawyer told Labato that her friend wanted her to care for the animals.

Labato quickly welcomed Jason and Sammy into her own home and often brought them to the nursing home for reunions with Koller. Jason died two years ago, and Sammy, a found kitten brought to Cummings School many years ago, is now about 12 and very affectionate, Labato says. “He loves to kiss and cuddle, and many mornings he licks my eyelid.”

Labato says she is fortunate to have known Koller. “Noreen always wanted what was best for the animals,” she says. “Through this gift it’s as if she’s saying ‘carry on—keep up the good work.’ If I could, I would have liked to say ‘thank you, and don’t worry, we will.’ ”

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