Area woman battling latest in long line of illnesses

A benefit will be held for Robin Harkess and her husband Mark on May 4.
A benefit will be held for Robin Harkess and her husband Mark on May 4.

Robin Harkess is no stranger to organizing events designed to benefit those facing various illnesses and soaring medical bills. She’s organized five such events in the past, even while battling cancer of her own.

This time, however, it’s friends and family that are organizing a benefit on Harkess’ behalf, and it’s still taking some time for her to get used to the idea.

“It feels really weird,” Harkess said.

Harkess, who lives just a few blocks from St. Mary Czestochowa Church in rural Delano but frequently shops and dines in Watertown, is currently suffering from Systemic Scleroderma. There is no known cure for the autoimmune disease, which can affect the skin, kidneys, heart, lungs and gastrointestinal tract, and is three or four times more likely to affect woman than men.

Harkess said the disease in its milder form typically affects the skin, but can move inside the body to various organs as well, and in her case, is affecting her lungs. The recent Scleroderma diagnosis, however, is only the latest in a long line of medical battles for Harkess that have spanned the last 18 years.

It all started in the early 1990s, shortly after Harkess married her husband, Mark, in 1993. Shortly after, in 1994, Harkess became pregnant, but later lost the baby. That’s when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Eventually, that initial diagnosis of cervical cancer became uterine and ovarian cancer, and eventually went to lymphatic cancer. Harkess has received treatments off an on for the last 18 years for those cancers, often going into remission for brief periods, only to see it come back. Harkess was in remission in December when she received yet another diagnosis: skin cancer.

“I was finally free of inside cancer, and then I got skin cancer,” Harkess said. “We just can’t stop, can we?”

That skin cancer diagnosis, though, was only part of the bad news. That’s how doctors discovered the Scleroderma as well.

Amazingly, however, none of those illnesses are what affects Harkess the most on a day-to-day basis. She also was diagnosed with a microvascular brain disease eight years ago. She suffered her first of several major strokes in 2007, and continues to suffer from mini strokes — often undetectable except by brain scans — on a regular basis.

The strokes have left Harkess unable to work, and with short-term memory loss. She’s unable to drive more than short distances, and only then, just to places like Watertown Pharmacy or other places she frequented before the strokes started. However, after one major stroke left her in a wheelchair for six months, extensive physical therapy has helped her regain her strength so that she can more easily accomplish everyday tasks.

“She was bound and determined to get back out of that (wheelchair), and she did,” Mark Harkess said.

Harkess previously worked as a medical technician, and her first major stroke occurred while transporting a patient to the hospital. In the back of the van, she forgot how to hook up the ventilator, so after taking the wheel instead, she also forgot how to get to the hospital.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “I thought I was driving 70 miles per hour, and I was only driving 30. All of a sudden police surrounded the vehicle.”

All in all, Harkess estimates she’s had 20 major surgeries over the last 18 years, and countless smaller procedures. Only half joking, she noted that she doesn’t know what can come up next, because there aren’t many parts left in her.

“You kind of get numb to it,” Mark Harkess said. “You just keep plugging away and doing what you can.”

Mark Harkess said they had been told several times by doctors that Robin wouldn’t still be alive today, yet she is.

“I guess we fooled them,” Robin said, adding that her current doctor won’t give her an estimate as far as how long she’ll live.

The medical bills have been adding up for the Harkesses. Mark works full time as an electrician, but Robin has been unable to work since 2007. Many of the expenses are covered by insurance, but the co-pays have been adding up quickly with as many as three or four appointments per week earlier this year, and Harkess’ prescription limit has already been reached this year.

That’s why friends and family decided to host a benefit, which will take place on May 4 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Dave’s Town Club in Delano. The event will include a silent auction, raffle and lunch. The couple will also be raffling off their motor home as part of the event. More information on the raffle and the event is available by calling 612-638-8923.

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]