By Mike Brue
GRAND FORKS — A little more than a year ago, Terry Harmon began a new health journey that turned into a roller coaster ride.
“It’s been a tough haul,” he said this week.
Still, the 51-year-old Grand Forks man is more optimistic than he’s been in months that he’s nearing a positive destination. That optimism gets an added boost from Saturday’s benefit on his behalf at the East Grand Forks, Minn., Eagles Club (see sidebar). It’s been organized by some family and friends, and charitable nonprofit NDAD is a sponsor.
“You know, he’s the last person who’s going to ask anyone for help,” said Larry Laughlin, a longtime friend who also is a co-worker at Rydell Auto Center. Laughlin is one of the benefit organizers.
“He’s been amazing. He’s had a few ‘why me?’ patches, but
everybody goes through that,” said Meaghann Harmon, 27, Terry’s daughter and a benefit organizer. “Honestly, his spirits have been great. He has to keep looking ahead. . . He’s been a true inspiration to me, (saying) just keep fighting the fight, and one day it will be better.”
Harmon’s first colonoscopy in late March 2013 – scheduled at the urging of older brother Tom— revealed seven non-cancerous polyps and a lesion that proved cancerous after a biopsy – an “unnerving” discovery, he recalls, after actually seeing the lesion discovered on a monitor during the examination.
But the examination also was proof positive that timely colorectal screenings can catch a potentially fatal cancer before it’s too late to seek effective treatment.
Harmon said test results put the cancer at roughly a Stage 2 or 3 “because it hadn’t gotten out of the colon but made it through the third wall.” Neither surrounding lymph nodes nor vital organs were affected.
Still, daughter Meaghann recalled, “It was like a rug was pulled out from under him.”
“He was pretty unsure. And scared — like any one would be,” she said. “For a while, it was just sitting, waiting and wondering. . . . Once they had a game plan how to fight it, then he was surer and more confident about it.”
Harmon began chemotherapy and radiation a year ago to try killing and shrinking the colon tumor before surgery. The now-smaller, nickel-size lesion was removed, and his colon re-routed, by surgeon Dr. Robin Hape last June 16 at Altru Hospital.
Summer gave Harmon an opportunity to heal, and eventually he returned to his job in wholesale auto parts at Rydell Auto Center in Grand Forks. A round of post-operative chemotherapy followed in October. But new problems developed: a colon abscess led to formation of a tract, called a fistula, that grew from his colon to his bladder and resulted in a urinary tract infection, Harmon said.
He returned to Altru Hospital in late November, this time for more than a week, to have surgery to again re-route his colon, he said.
“There was a pocket of bacteria down behind my bladder, too, that with antibiotics they’d hoped and speculated that it would take care of that infection,” Harmon said. He received oral antibiotics, and a post-surgical scan in December indicated that the infection was shrinking, he was told.
Then came the weekend before Christmas.
A difficult Christmas holiday
“Saturday night, I was sitting up and doing Christmas gifts — just the normal stuff, feeling fine,” Harmon said. “When I went to bed, my right leg was throbbing and my toes were just – well, everything was sore on the right side, in my right leg. And my lower back was sore. It felt like a muscle cramp.
“So, I was up late night and early in the morning, trying to stretch my leg out and my back out, and I could not figure out why it was acting this way. . . . Anyway, I slept hardly at all.”
He didn’t recognize that his body temperature was elevated.
When he rose Sunday morning, he was in pain, his leg was throbbing “and then I realized that my toes were numb on my right foot,” he recalled. He made a phone call to Meaghann “and said, ‘I need to go to the ER. There’s something wrong with my leg and my back.’ ”
He phoned Altru’s emergency room and then checked his own temperature, as a nurse had suggested. He had a fever of nearly 103 degrees.
“When I went into the ER, the ER doctor said, ‘We’re going to put you through an MRI to find out what’s going on.’ . . . They did find out that I had a blood infection.” Apparently, the infection behind his bladder made its way into the veins in Harmon’s back and near the base of his spine, he was told.
That was Dec. 22. “I was in the hospital for 11 days because of that, on many different antibiotics, trying to figure out what the infection would react to,” Harmon said. Altru’s infectious disease specialist, Dr. James Hargreaves, determined a course of treatment. “I ended up on eight weeks of home IV antibiotics before the infection finally went away,” Harmon said.
Discharged on Jan. 1, he felt weary, overwhelmed and sad. “I missed the holidays with my family. Not the normal regimen that I was used to.” His latest setback had shaken his confidence in his health.
“There’s a while there that he didn’t think he get through it,” Meaghann Harmon recalled. “The infection was scarier than the cancer, because the infection was extremely life-threatening right away.”
As winter continued, so did the achiness and throbbing in Harmon’s right leg, and the numbness in his toes. His lower back began bothering him even more. Something else wasn’t right with his back, he told his neurologist.
Harmon learned “there’s kind of a build-up of this kind of mucous-y pus build-up that’s putting pressure on those nerves, and he said what they would do is go in and make an incision and clean that out and open that up and get pressure off the nerves.” That surgery, though, would have to wait until he healed further. He was given a strong antibiotic intended to tackle and eliminate a possible infection in his back bone, he said.
When his back pain became even more severe, Harmon strongly urged another scan. “Something else was going on,” he said.
A CT scan and x-rays in February revealed that one of Harmon’s vertebrae had fractured and already had started to heal again. “The neurologist asked me right away if I had fallen, and, no, I hadn’t fallen on ice or anything,” Harmon recalled. It was possible, but not certain, that the infection might have contributed to weakening or deteriorating the vertebrae.
Harmon wanted to wear a back brace but could not because, since his late fall surgery, he’s using a temporary ileostomy — an opening that allows intestinal waste to collect into a pouching system that adheres to his skin. He hopes to find out soon from Dr. Hape whether his colon has healed sufficiently to remove the ileostomy.
Harmon said more recent health reports have been encouraging, he said. A second colonoscopy, performed April 4, showed that his repaired colon – about eight inches have been removed — “looked great,” with no polyps and no sign of cancer. “And the fistula tube had dissipated,” Harmon said. “The hole it created in his colon is covered and healed.
Also, a CT scan showed that his infection “is finally gone.”
“He had been extremely frustrated. Yeah, he was not his happy-go-lucky self for a while. Well, now in the last few months or so, he’s starting to be his old joking self again. . . . He didn’t give up. He did what the doctors told him to do,” said Laughlin, who first worked with Terry Harmon back in ’81 at the old Wilcox and Malm auto dealership, when Harmon moved to Grand Forks.
Harmon is eager for his back woes to end his temporary disability so he may return to his job at Rydell, where he’s been for 21 years. “I love my job,” he said. Rydell management and co-workers “have been very supportive and very upbeat about this thing,” he said. “And they want me back to work. . . .They’re very happy with the fact that I’ve been doing so well.”
Terry is an “outgoing, very energetic guy,” Laughlin said. “A super nice guy, always helpful and a hard worker. He’s always right there working.”
The combination of extended absence from his job and multiple medical trips seriously strain his finances, even with some help from medical and disability insurance. “Monetarily, I’ve gotten a few gifts from family members to help me with bills,” Harmon said. “Sometimes they’ve given me a bit to spend on something fun. It shows that they care.”
He also credits the support he’s received from friends and family, including his daughter Meaghan and two sons, Haydn, 19, and Liam, who turned 17 on Monday; and Harmon’s parents, Milo and Marie Harmon of East Grand Forks. Milo Harmon is a prostate cancer survivor.
“He’s very optimistic. I love that man,” Meaghan Harmon said. “It’s his daughter that’s the worry wart. I worry. He’s like, ‘Knock it off.’ ”
Terry Harmon says he’s also been encouraged to learn that his own cancer experience has led to others getting colorectal examinations. “It makes me feel like I’ve done a lot of good,” he said.
Twice during March – first in Altru Foundation’s Legacy newsletter, then in some Forum Communications media outlets, starting with the Grand Forks Herald – Harmon’s colorectal cancer exam and resulting treatment for cancer have been the centerpiece of articles about the benefits of colorectal screening. “I actually got a lot of response, a lot of good feedback” from the articles, Harmon said, “and a lot of them had not had colonoscopies before. . . . I wanted to take that stigma out of it. A day out of your life can save your life.”
Now, he’s both excited and anxious about Saturday’s benefit, an event he hopes will “be fun and . . . a blast.” He welcomes an opportunity to reminisce with friends and family about years past. He even expects to get a bit of grief from his co-workers. Harmon also concedes that “this whole thing is going to be very overwhelming for me, all the consideration from people.”
“Like I say, it’s so nice to know that people care about you,” Harmon said. “It’s not going to hit me until 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon.”
Mike Brue is communications director for NDAD.