The remarkable life journey of a popular community activist whose courageous and inspiring story of survival against the odds, came to a sad ending Monday when his transplanted heart stopped beating.
Ray Harmon, who for nearly a year walked the floors of Aurora St Luke’s Hospital lugging around a desk sized artificial heart machine as the Wisconsin Donor Network worked tirelessly to find him a donor heart, succumbed six years after his transplant.
Well known for his community and political service, Harmon’s story of perseverance during a year long wait for a heart earned national attention.
Seemingly healthy and motivated after his medical ordeal in 2006, Harmon last year made an unsuccessful bid for public office, campaigning for Milwaukee alderman.
Falling short, he was immediately hired by State Senator Lena Taylor as her deputy chief of staff.
Taylor said at the time that she was privileged to find someone with Harmon’s credentials to work in her office.
And those credentials were indeed impressive.
A lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Harmon found himself working in politics soon after college. He was employed as a legislative assistant at both the county and city levels before taking a position with the Milwaukee Urban League.
He was soon drawn back to politics, however, and in 2003 was appointed Economic Development Officer by then Governor Jim Doyle. Recognizing his unique talents and community involvement, Doyle soon appointed Harmon to head his Milwaukee office.
Harmon was well known in the Black community and almost single handily structured a bridge between the governor’s office and community civic and business leadership.
Harmon was highly regarded as a problem solver who used his position to link individuals and organizations to state resources and business opportunities.
His work was interrupted in 2006 when a succession of heart surgeries could no longer sustain him.
With no other options, Harmon agreed to become the first Wisconsinite to receive a CardoWest Total Artificial Art implant at St. Luke’s Hospital.
While the surgery to implant the artificial heart was successful, it was recognized as only a temporary life support mechanism. The search was immediately underway to find a human heart replacement before the machine ran its course.
Harmon was confined to the hospital, attached to implant machine for nearly a year. The large machine restricted his movements and the best he could do was to walk the halls of the hospital with the machine in tow.
Remarkably, Harmon continued most of his activities, connecting to the governor’s office and the community from his hospital bed by telephone and his laptop computer.
Finally, a heart was located for Harmon and in early 2007 physicians at St. Luke’s successfully transplanted the donation into their famous patient.
Harmon said in an interview after the surgery that he counted his blessings.
Nationally, over 3,000 individuals are on a waiting list for a heart. Over 400 die each year before a donor can be found.
Harmon didn’t take his ‘luck’ for granted. As soon as he had undergone rehabilitation, he immediately began speaking before audiences in the Black community about the importance of Black donation.
Jay Campbell, director of the Wisconsin Donor Network and a vice president with the Blood Center of Wisconsin, recalled that Harmon reached out to the Network while still a patient at St. Luke’s.
“We actually produced a videotape that we used as part of a new initiative targeting the Black community which he was featured on while he still waiting on a heart transplant,” Campbell said.
Six years ago, Wisconsin had the smallest number of registered African Ameircan donors in the United States.
Campbell turned that abysmal statistic around with the help of volunteers like Harmon. Three years later, Milwaukee soared from last to first place for African American donors.
“And as soon as physically possible following his transplant, Ray began working with the Donor Network and Blood Center on outreach projects,” Campbell said. “He understood the importance of giving life through donation.”
That philosophy was put to the test a couple years after his surgery when Harmon’s mother died. He didn’t hesitate to donate her organs. Campbell said three people’s lives were extended because of that gesture.
“His entire family was involved in donation, and hundreds of people in the community pledged to become organ donors and regular blood contributors because of Ray,” Campbell added. “He was truly dedicated to this cause.
“He was a remarkable man. He never let his personal circumstance overwhelm him, and the fact that he would dedicate his life to ‘giving the gift of life’ is a remarkable tribute to the man and his family.”
Exact details of Harmon’s death were not available prior to the Community Journal deadline. Additional information will be published in the WEEKEND edition, and on-line at Communityjournal.net. A feature on organ donation will be published in the Community Journal’s new Healthy Start Magazine.
(Editor’s note: The author of this report had a unique relationship with Ray Harmon. Harmon’s son was a student in Malik Holt’s elementary school class. Malik Holt, who died in an auto accident in 2003, was an organ donor.
Mikel Holt serves on the Organ Donor Network advisory board, and worked alongside Harmon as a volunteer speaker. Harmon was intending to write a book on his experiences that Holt agreed to edit.
Memorial services for Harmon willbe held at Greater New Birth Church, 8237 W. Silver Spring Dr. on Monday, March 4. Visitation will be 5p.m. to 7 p.m. The tribute service will be from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Funeral services will be held Tuesday, March 5 at Christ the King Church, 7750 N. 60th St. Viewing will start at 5p.m. and the funeral service at 6 p.m. All funeral arrangements have been entrusted to Northwest Funeral Home.)