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‘Nothing surprises us anymore’
April 22, 2013
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Benefit for Robin Harkess at Dave’s Town Club Saturday, May 4

By Starrla Cray
Staff Writer

DELANO, MN – In the past two decades, 53-year-old Robin Harkess of Delano has been diagnosed with several types of cancer, a small-vessel brain disease, multiple sclerosis, a degenerative bone disease, and most recently, an auto-immune disease called scleroderma.

“Nothing surprises us anymore,” Robin said.

“After so many years of so many things, you kind of get used to it,” added Robin’s husband, Mark.

Robin found out she had scleroderma in December  2012, during a doctor’s appointment in which she was also diagnosed with melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer).

By now, Robin is used to cancer, but scleroderma – which is affecting her skin and lungs – is a new challenge.

“There is no cure,” she said. “It’s not like cancer, where you can go into remission.”

Coping with hardship
Robin’s first experience with cancer was in 1995, two years after she and Mark got married. She was four-and-one-half months pregnant when doctors discovered her cervical cancer, resulting in the loss of her baby.

Other types of cancer, such as ovarian and lymphatic, were later discovered.

“The longest she made it [without a new cancer diagnosis] was two years,” Mark said.

Another challenge surfaced eight years ago, with the diagnosis of a small-vessel brain disease. Robin had her first stroke in 2007, and was confined to a wheelchair until she regained her strength.

Since then, Robin has had several transient ischemic attacks (TIAs), or “mini-strokes.”

“I still have them,” Robin said. “I get really bad headaches, and sometimes I pass out. Sometimes, we go to the hospital, but other times we just stay here, since there’s nothing they can do for it.”

The disease has also resulted in short-term memory loss, so Robin had to quit her job as a lab technician.

“I started getting lost,” she explained.

“I stopped having her go to pick out movies,” Mark added. “She comes back with the movie she just watched.”

Doctors predicted Robin would only live five or six years after she was diagnosed with the brain disease, but eight years later, she is still fighting hard for survival.

“She’s had like 29 major operations, and I don’t know how many procedures,” said Mark, who has a few health challenges of his own, including diabetes, sleep apnea, hypothyroidism, and a heart arrhythmia.

Fortunately, Mark is still able to work full time, although he’s had to take quite a bit of time off to take Robin to doctor appointments.

Robin isn’t able to drive anymore, due to her medications for scleroderma. The disease has caused painful tightening of her hands, and is also affecting her lungs.

“If it goes into the heart, I’m dead,” Robin said. “I try really hard not to think about it, in general, because there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Scleroderma is more common in women than men, and symptoms vary widely from person to person. According to the Scleroderma Foundation, it’s not necessarily inherited, but some scientists feel families with a history of rheumatic disease might have a slight predisposition.

In Robin’s family, her siblings are all in good health, but her father had strokes and cancer before he passed away at age 50.

Through the years, Robin and Mark have had friends die of cancer, as well, and even provided hospice care in their home.

Now, Robin is the one in need of assistance. To help cover medical expenses, she and Mark will raffle off their boat and camper at Robin’s benefit Saturday, May 4. Soon, they also plan to put their house on the market, and downsize to a one-level home (in case Robin needs to use a wheelchair again).

“Robin has had tremendous faith and tenacity when going through the challenges of each of these diseases,” noted her mother-in-law, Doris Harkess. “. . . This world would be a better place if there were more people like Robin. When we learn what some people have to go through, we should be thankful for our good health.”

What is scleroderma?
The word scleroderma literally means “hard skin,” according to the Scleroderma Society of Ontario. Scleroderma is an uncommon autoimmune connective tissue disease that affects small blood vessels.

Symptoms can be mild or severe, and there is currently no cure. The most characteristic feature of scleroderma is hard, thickening of the skin. The disease can also damage internal organs.

The Scleroderma Society of Ontario reports that stopping smoking is the number-one thing patients can do to lessen scleroderma symptoms. Medications are also available to reduce symptoms and limit damage.

Benefit info
Details for the benefit to help Robin Harkess with medical expenses are as follows:

• When: Saturday, May 4 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

• Where: Dave’s Town Club, 136 N. River St in Delano

• What: Lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and a silent auction and raffle from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Items to be raffled include a boat and camper owned by the Harkess family.

• Cost: Suggested donation is $5 per meal

• Donations: Those who aren’t able to make it to the benefit can send donations to the Robin Harkess Benefit Fund at Bremer Bank, 301 Territorial St. E., Watertown, MN 55388.

• Contacts: To learn more about the benefit, call Jean Leber at (612) 718-5478 or Doris Harkess at (952) 955-2679.

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