A cancer of the blood caused by the bone marrow producing abnormal white blood cells that crowd out healthy ones.
“The first thing my mom did when we learned about her diagnosis was apologize to me about the timing. It was an absurd thing to do, and I think she knows that, but it is reflective of her selflessness throughout this,” said Daniel Harting.
It was June 27th and Michelle “Missy” Harting was supposed to be celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary to her husband, Charlie. Instead, the seventh grade language arts teacher at Hamilton Southeastern’s Riverside Junior High was diagnosed with leukemia. Under the care of Dr. Dave Utpal she was admitted to IU Health Simon Cancer Center the next day. It was a month before the oldest of her three sons, Daniel, was set to marry his bride Kara Rebholz.
Nothing was going to stop Harting from dancing at her son’s wedding. Not even leukemia.
“During the first month of her battle, the wedding gave my mom a goal and target date. She was so determined to make it. While Kara and I always wanted what was best for her health foremost, we felt her love in her determination,” said Daniel, 27.
Fellow teachers say Harting exhibits that same passion and drive in the classroom.
“She is a wonderful role model for what a passionate, caring teacher should be,” said Debbie Eder who has taught with Harting for more than a decade. “I am always amazed by her grace with her students. For even the most challenging students, Missy finds a way to not only reach them academically, but to forge a personal relationship with them,” said Eder, adding that fellow teachers often refer to Harting as a “surrogate mom” to her students.
“Years after students have her in class, they will say that she was one of their favorite and most influential teachers,” said Eder.
So it was no surprise that her motherly instincts kicked in when a month before her son’s wedding she learned her cancer cells were at 97%.
Harting, 49, was all set to take a flight to Clearwater, Fla. to visit her father before preparing to start another school year. But she was short of breath and her heart was racing. She takes thyroid medicine so she initially thought the symptoms might be caused by a change in her medication. A trip to her family doctor ended in lab work.
“I was told I had acute leukemia - the most aggressive cells,” said Harting. “I was overwhelmed.” Her boys were together for a birthday dinner so she wanted to wait until after the celebration to break the news. But the next day she ended up in ER and was admitted to IU Health Simon Cancer Center.
“From that moment on, she has been strong and focused on beating it. She said early on that she wasn’t going to miss the wedding,” said her husband, Charlie, an officer with the Carmel Police Department.
Weddings are important to the Hartings.
Charlie met his bride on a blind date at Missy’s best friend’s wedding. She was marrying Charlie’s best friend. “We were the only two in the wedding party who were single,” said Charlie. That was 32 years ago. Missy was a senior in high school, with her eye on becoming a teacher. Two days after Charlie was inducted into the Police Academy he popped the question and the two were married in the Friends Church in Greenfield. Missy finished her degree at the University of Indianapolis.
From her hospital bed at IU Health Simon Cancer Center Missy talked about how strange it was thinking of her teacher friends ending their summer vacation and starting a new school year without her. Her peers also miss her.
“Missy Harting is a pillar of our school. She is a teacher leader,” said Riverside Principal Rob Heusing. “Staff seek her out for wise counsel, and students love being in her class and learning from her. She is an unbelievably positive person with an infectious laugh that I miss dearly.”
Heusing related how one of Harting’s students fought a personal battle with leukemia and Harting became a “point person” organizing fundraisers to help the student’s family.
On the first day of school this year, those same supporters wore bright orange and gray t-shirts showing solidarity in the “Hearts 4 Harting” campaign.
Seventh grade teacher Teeda Sottong, who met Harting 12 years ago, headed up the campaign.
Sottong was a first year teacher when she met Harting. “She was quick to take me under her wing and help me stand on my own two feet,” recalls Sottong. “Honestly, there is so much to love about Missy that I could write an entire book. Regardless of whether it's a personal or professional matter, people flock to Missy because she is the voice of reason and offers sound advice without any judgment. She has a heart of gold, a desire to serve others and a faith that never wavers. Her laugh is loud and sometimes ridiculous, yet contagious at the same time,” said Sattong, adding that she didn’t think twice about designing a t-shirt illustrating the love and support for her friend.
“Simply put, I knew the beginning of the school year wouldn’t be the same without her. Even though she couldn’t be with us physically, it was important for her to know that we weren’t forgetting about her for a second,” said Sottong.
What started out as a simple way to support a friend and colleague,
quickly took on a life of its own as friends, family members, church members, students and even strangers supported the “Hearts 4 Harting” campaign. Approximately $800 was donated to the Leukemia Society on behalf of Harting and her family.
Harting knows she’s not in the fight alone. At school, students, family and staff members are drawn to her because of her humor, caring spirit and desire to make a positive impact on others.
“She never fails to go above and beyond to make a person feel loved and appreciated. Service projects with her students, birthday celebrations for colleagues, Bible Studies for small groups, the list could go on and on. She truly is such an asset to our Riverside family and we miss her tremendously,” said Sottong.
“It hasn’t all been pleasant but I’ve had a great team of people praying for me and I have a great team in the hospital,” said Harting, who went through two cycles of chemotherapy and a pediatric regiment during her first month in the hospital.
“We were also touched by how supportive the entire IU Health staff was about the wedding. Her doctors and nurses knew the wedding date and helped her pick her dresses for the rehearsal and the wedding,” said Daniel Harting. “To have the backing of her entire medical team helped us feel confident about putting my mom through so much on her first full day out of the hospital.”
It was just five hours before the rehearsal dinner when Harting was given the nod to leave the hospital to attend the family celebration. “I was a nervous wreck,” said her husband. “She was exhausted and I was worried that she would get sick.”
It wasn’t only important for Harting to attend her son’s wedding, it was important that she was not the focus of attention.
“I think she wanted to ensure that the memories of the day were as normal as possible - focused on family, yes, but not on illness,” said Daniel Harting, adding that just days before the wedding he wasn’t sure she would be able to attend.
She had the will and determination to leave the hospital, but Missy Harting could not control the situation once she entered the church. Watching her walk down the aisle on the arm of his younger brothers – David Harting, 24, and Samuel Harting, 22, - Daniel Harting saw not only the face of a mother’s love and pride, but also a face of strength.
“I got to see my mom dressed up, looking as gorgeous as ever and smiling down the aisle. I count that as one of the great blessings of my life,” said Daniel. And even though she didn’t want to be the center of attention, there was one thing left to close out the celebration and it put her in the spotlight.
The voice of Mark Harris’ singing “Find Your Wings” filled the reception hall:
“It's only for a moment you are mine to hold
The plans that heaven has for you
Will all too soon unfold
So many different prayers I'll pray
For all that you might do
But most of all I'll want to know
You're walking in the truth
And If I never told you
I want you to know
As I watch you grow.”
Daniel Harting escorted his mother onto the dance floor and the tears started flowing.
“All those people who have been caring for and praying for my mom couldn’t hold it back. Mom was crying too – not polite, pretty crying either,” said Daniel. “We hugged and wept and smiled. They were tears of happiness and partial relief. It was a beautiful moment for everyone. Her presence there was a remarkable achievement and blessing for our whole family.”
-- By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.
-- Mother/Son Dance Photo courtesy Kelly Applegate Photography