Fire destroys nurse’s home, yet reveals his good heart

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01/13/2022

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Jake Harmon is most comfortable caring for others, but now he is on the receiving end as his Riley family supports him through loss.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Jake Harmon is a giver. He gives his time and his heart to his friends, his family and especially his patients on the fifth floor at Riley Hospital for Children.

For 12 years, he has given his best as a nurse on the stem cell unit at Riley, a place filled with stories of hope and healing, but also anguish and loss.

So when a fire forced him to flee his Indianapolis home late on the night of Dec. 12, he did what he always does. He went to work the next day.

But not before pushing his car out of the garage as the roof threatened to collapse.

“He didn’t miss a single shift. He came to work with his hands blistered after pushing hot metal,” said Darby Burns, dayshift coordinator on the stem cell unit. “He knew he needed his car to get to work.”

The first call he made the day after the fire was to his manager, Lynn Lawson, who has continued, with help from Burns, to offer and organize the support of the cancer center staff, he said.

HIS WORK FAMILY

Harmon doesn’t think he deserves any special attention, so we are turning the spotlight on his Riley co-workers, the people he considers his family in Indianapolis. The people who have wrapped their arms around their colleague, their friend, to help him through a tough time.

Those same people, however, can’t talk about the fire without gushing about Harmon – his work ethic, his positivity, his humility.

“He’s an awesome nurse. He legitimately has won every nurse award at Riley,” Burns said. That includes the prestigious Margaret Martin Award last year, named for a pioneer in patient and family care at Riley.

Burns goes on: “Incredible guy, selfless, dedicated. And always our go-to when we need any coaching or precepting for new hires. There’s no end to the good things I can say about Jake. I feel fortunate to get to work with him.”

When news of the fire spread, Harmon’s co-workers rallied to help – offering him a place to stay, bringing him meals, helping him pick through the remains of his single-family home on Indy’s northeastside. Burns went a step further – setting up a GoFundMe to help Harmon financially.

He is a little embarrassed about the attention, telling his friends that he is lucky because things could have been worse.

Not many people would react that way in this situation, Burns said, pointing out that he is a pediatric nurse working overtime in a pandemic and he just lost his house.

LEARNING TO ACCEPT HELP

“People are going to want to help you, Jake, and you’ve got to just suck it up and let them help you,” she told him.

That includes people like Angel Gaskins, a nurse on the unit for 21 years, the past 12 with Harmon.

“He is a very humble person,” Gaskins said. “He doesn’t realize the things he is doing that make such a difference. Even in the tragedy that has occurred for him, he still just thinks, ‘Oh, I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing, coming to work every day, doing the best I can.’”

There’s nothing special about it, he insists. His friends beg to differ.

“Even if behind the scenes he might be struggling, he handles it with grace at work. He’s a good co-worker and one of my best friends,” Gaskins said. “We’ve all gathered around him to make sure he has what he needs. We would do the same for any of us.”

For Harmon, who is single and has owned his home for about five years, all the attention is enough to make him blush, but it symbolizes why he considers Riley his family.

Work, he said, is a refuge of sorts from the destruction of the fire (which remains under investigation). It’s there where co-workers bring him meals and make sure he has the coffee that powers him.

“I have had multiple nurses on my unit bring me food and coffee,” he said. “Almost each night I work I have a meal brought for me to warm up; a few nurses even did meal prepping for me, bringing me days of meals to keep in the refrigerator.”

“UNIT BARISTA”

One of the kind gestures involved the team pitching in to replace his espresso machine on Christmas Eve, he said.

“I am the ‘unit barista,’ and often I supply coffee on pitch-in nights for my co-workers. One of the simple pleasures in my life is a daily (or more) iced coffee, so the loss of my machine symbolized the loss of ‘normal life’ for me,” Harmon said.

With his home about 75% destroyed due to the fire, smoke and water damage, Harmon faces a challenge in getting in habitable again, but he’s not doing that alone either.

Fellow nurses and others have brought in tools he can use and volunteered family members to help with cleanup, demolition and rebuilding.

“Support has come from far and wide as I receive texts daily from staff members from throughout the hospital with words of encouragement and offers of a place to stay or to lend a hand,” Harmon said.

SPECIAL BOND

He remains grateful and determined.

“I moved to Indianapolis from northern Indiana 12 years ago this month to work at Riley. My family does not have the resources to help me. I’m kind of on my own.”

Turns out, he’s not on his own at all.

“Our co-workers are more like our family,” said Gaskins, who is one of several longtime cancer center nurses pictured pre-pandemic on the steps of Simon Family Tower with Harmon.

“I would give my left kidney to him if he needed it,” she added. “He doesn’t want to ask for help, but we know he needs it. Being able to accept that help, I think, will help him grow.”

Harmon, Gaskins and nurses throughout Riley and hospitals everywhere are working long, difficult hours amid the latest Covid surge.

“We see a lot of stuff together that we shouldn’t see, so we have a special bond,” she said.

Coming together to help a colleague in need isn’t new. It’s just what they do.