The first thing you notice about Mark Harmon is how easy it is to talk to him. He’s quiet, unassuming, unfailingly polite and charming – with a quick wit that means laughter is definitely a part of any conversation.
What most people don’t realize upon meeting Harmon is that he is a cancer survivor, whose main goal in life is to give back to those who gave so much to him.
“I got lucky,” said Harmon, “There’s a lot of little kids who didn’t. I feel like I owe a lot of people for it.”
Harmon was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) on Oct. 4, 1983, just one month shy of his third birthday.
ALL is cancer of the white blood cells, where malignant, immature white blood cells continuously multiply and are overproduced in the bone marrow. Forty years ago the survival rate for a child with ALL was zero. Now, according to the American Cancer Society, the survival rate is around 30 to 40 percent. Mark Harmon is one of the lucky ones.
The youngest of Excelsior Springs natives, Bob and Judy Harmon’s three children, Mark’s condition shook the family to the core – their lives changing in one, heartbreaking diagnosis.
Harmon was put on the first of three and one-half years of chemotherapy. By November, his cancer was in remission, but because his immune system was low, he developed internal bleeding caused by a yeast infection that was difficult to pinpoint as it wasn’t in the usual location of the mouth. Spots had popped out on his skin and were biopsied. He was placed in the ICU in mid-November. The doctors performed exploratory surgery in his abdomen, but the bleeding was widespread and there was nothing they could do.
The situation became worse when his abdomen swelled and the incision split open – he was placed on a ventilator. The doctor closed his abdomen and began trying different therapies to stop the internal bleeding. They even combined medicines and made new ones in an effort to stop the bleeding, which finally stopped on its own. One of those medicines caused a fever that ran at 105 degrees for about a year.
While he was in the ICU, he became immune to the donor platelet and white blood cells and needed numerous blood transfusions. The problems kept coming – Harmon then developed yeast infections in his heart and esophagus.
“My sister and I were pulled out of school a few times because they thought my brother wasn’t going to make it,” said Rob Harmon, Mark’s older brother. “It was tough,” he added.
“I was given last rites at least once,” said Mark, who doesn’t remember much about that time.
He was in the hospital until the end of March 1984 and returned a few times for numerous shorter stays. In addition to the other health issues, Harmon’s liver and spleen were very enlarged.
“When they finally got smaller,” said Judy Harmon, “we had a big ‘My liver and spleen are getting smaller’ party.”
When Mark was 6, someone referred him to the Dream Factory. He had a lifelong dream to meet Royals superstar George Brett.
“I wanted to meet George Brett,” said Harmon. “He’s my hero.”
The Dream Factory is a nationwide organization whose mission is to “grant dreams to critically and chronically ill children from the ages of 3 through 18.”
In September of 1988, Mark and his family were treated like royalty by the Royals and George Brett. Mark was able to meet Brett before the game, watch batting practice, and the entire family enjoyed a full dinner at the Stadium Club restaurant. They were presented with athletic bags stuffed with Royals souvenir items that included a jersey, batting helmet and two baseballs, one autographed by Brett himself. These were souvenirs that are keepers.
On Saturday, Nov. 19, Anytime Fitness sponsored its first 5K Run/2 Mile Walk in Richmond, with proceeds benefitting the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. While this was the first turkey trot, future fundraisers are coming. The November run/walk was a trial run for what Harmon hopes will become a larger event to fully benefit the Dream Factory.
This new event is in the planning stages for March 31, 2012 – another Turkey Trot 5K/2 Mile Run. Harmon is hoping that this event will take place here in Excelsior Springs, possibly at Tiger Stadium where participants will have an easier place to walk/run in. He is working with the Dream Factory to make this event happen, with all proceeds expected to benefit the organization through volunteering and charitable donations.
“Life has a funny way of repeating itself,” he said. “It’s my role in life to give back. We don’t live in a vacuum – our responsibility is to everyone in our lives. I was fortunate and I’m a big believer in positive thinking.”
To volunteer, donate or work with the Dream Factory, visit: www.kcdream.org – or call Mark Harmon at 816-405-3856
By Liz Johnson • firstname.lastname@example.org