Community rallies around Harju family
NEW CASTLE – From all outward appearances, Phil Harju was a normal 14-year-old kid – going to school, playing hockey and snowboarding with his friends.But on April 1, 2005, his world changed when he was diagnosed with leukemia.For six months, the New Castle teenager bravely battled his disease, but on Sept. 27, he lost the fight. “He had been falling down, and he looked pale,” his mother, Val Harju, said. “We took him to the doctor, and when he hopped on the scale, he had lost 20 pounds between Thanksgiving (2004) and April.”The doctors ran tests, and when the Harjus were called back to the office, they were immediately flown by Lear jet to Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver.A month of chemotherapy followed, but Phil still had a leukemia cell count of 70 percent. In mid-June he went into remission.He did manage to come home over the Fourth of July weekend, but on July 14, the doctors said he needed a bone marrow transplant.
Among his parents and seven siblings, his sister, Leanna, 13, proved to be a perfect match.”His sister donated the bone marrow, and for the most part, the transplant was very successful,” said family friend Mari Riddile, also of New Castle. “But somebody had to be there with him all the time.”Phil was moved to Children’s Hospital in Denver, where friends and family stayed with him around the clock – including his mother, his father, Art, and an aunt who quit her job in Phoenix to come to Colorado and help the family out.Although it seemed Phil was getting better, the doctors had more bad news. Because his immune system was so weak, he had developed a fungal infection in his lung.”We decided as a group we wouldn’t tell him,” his mother said. “We just told him there was a huge, huge hump in the road, and he knew it was a huge, huge thing. But the doctors weren’t giving up, and we still had hope.”The Make-A-Wish foundation came in and brought Phil some camping equipment he had asked for. Avalanche player Dan Hinote, who sponsors Hinote’s Heroes, brought Phil an autographed jersey.”He was a really neat guy,” Harju said. “He had come in the early afternoon and had a game that night. He dedicated the puck to Phil.” Unbeknownst to Hinote, Phil died that night due to the complications with his lungs.
“He fought right up to the end,” Harju said. “And right up to the end, we thought he was getting out. The doctors were very, very open, and Phil wasn’t scared. He took everything as it came and never complained.”Riddile, whose son, Graham, was friends with Phil, said she was amazed at his courage as well. “He never complained – not once,” she said. “He never did the ‘poor me’ attitude and was really, really brave through it all. He was such an inspiration. And he’s still making a difference – he touched a lot of people.”Besides the emotional rollercoaster of losing their second-eldest child, the Harjus were also left with astronomical medical bills.”I think it’s about $1.3 million, and that’s just for the hospital stay,” Harju said. “But with (the medications and treatment), it’s probably around the $3 million mark.”The family has insurance, but the bills are still overwhelming.”We can’t even worry about it,” Harju said. “You can only do the best you can do. You still have to go on with your life. But the community has been so supportive. We’re thankful for the goodness of the community, our friends and our church.”
In response, friends, family and co-workers are rallying around to raise money to help the large family with the medical expenses.Harju is employed at Alpine Bank-New Castle, which has joined with New Castle Family Fitness to hold a benefit dinner and auction Friday, Nov. 18, at Coal Ridge High School, where Phil would have attended school this year.Judy Shaffer, manager of Alpine Bank-New Castle, has been collecting items and helping to coordinate the benefit with Cathy Lee, of New Castle Family Fitness.”They’re such an amazing family,” Shaffer said. “And I know Val and her family would like to be a part of helping other people, too.” The benefit will start at 6 p.m. The chili dinner will feature traditional, Italian, green, vegetarian and chicken chili. A variety of items have already been donated for the auction, including an older model Cadillac and an Arabian horse.Cost of the dinner is $5 per person or $20 per family.Those wishing to donate items should call Shaffer at Alpine Bank, 984-2600, or Lee at New Castle Family Fitness, 984-3200.A memorial fund has also been set up in Phil Harju’s name, and a contribution can be made at any Alpine Bank.
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