“I want to honor them and honor their fight”




Certified bone marrow transplant nurse Jake Harmon wears his heart on his sleeve – and his backpack – displaying wristbands given to him by patients over 13 years.

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

As a nurse on the stem cell unit for Riley Children’s Health, Jake Harmon has plenty of bling on his badge.

There’s a Red Shoe award and a Daisy – both recognizing his impact on his patients and families – and there are his certifications as a pediatric nurse and a bone marrow transplant nurse. Today is Certified Nurses Day, recognizing nurses who go above and beyond to earn the highest credentials in their specialty.

In the future, Harmon said he might even go for an advanced practice provider license in oncology. He is beloved by his patients and his co-workers and earned the prestigious Margaret Martin Award in 2021, named for a pioneer in patient and family care at Riley.

But the bling on his backpack might be even more special than all the honors and credentials. On it are dozens of wristbands given to him by patients who were or are doing battle against cancer.

“My backpack is basically my purse,” said the Riley nurse, who’s been on the job for 13 years. “On each strap I have 13 years’ worth of wristbands that kids have given me.”

The bands signify a mixture of hope and respect for his pediatric patients – some who have survived and others who have not.

But none will be forgotten. Not by this nurse, who has spent his entire career in the Cancer Center at Riley Hospital for Children.

“I wear about eight to 10 bands on my wrist at any given time, but I can’t wear them all on my body,” Harmon said. “I think the kids enjoy seeing them. I joke with them that if I ever take their band off, it’s going on the wall of fame, which is my backpack.”

For Harmon, the symbolism is important. When he takes one off and puts it on the backpack, it’s either because the patient is out of treatment and doing well, or the child did not survive.

“I still want to honor them and honor their fight.”

Asked how he protects his heart working in a children’s hospital, Harmon points to the advancements in cancer treatments that he has witnessed in just his 13 years on the job.

“Some kids weren’t able to be saved, and it really hurts, but there is hope for the future. That keeps me going,” he said.

“I’ve been a nurse long enough to see kids surviving cancers that they used to not survive because a specific treatment was not available. Now, CAR T-cell therapy and new drugs and antibody treatments that were once under study are now standard of care and saving lives.”

It’s encouraging, he said, and keeps him optimistic.

“If you work here long enough, you can see how much better things get. And I want to see what will happen in the next 13 years.”

Harmon, 38, shares his optimism with new nurses as he orients them to Riley in his coach role.

“Things are getting better, which is why it’s so cool to work in oncology,” he said. “I love to fill them with that hope.”

His upbeat spirit and caring co-workers carried him through his own heartbreak just before Christmas 2021 – mid-pandemic – when his house was heavily damaged in a fire.

Since then, they have rallied around him to provide a place to stay and support him in his reconstruction efforts.

“I moved to Indianapolis 13 years ago to work at Riley, so I have no family here. The people at work have been my support system.”

Just in the past two months, Harmon has moved back into one room of the house while work continues on the rest. For much of 2022, he worked extra shifts to help out his IU Health nursing team while also giving him a financial cushion for repairs.

During all of the turmoil of the past 15 months, Harmon has continued to focus on his work family and his patients, which is why nursing certifications are important to him.

“Certifications lead to better patient outcomes,” he said. “The more skills a nurse obtains, the better equipped they are to provide their patients with higher-quality care. They validate a commitment to learning and growing.”

Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org