Luke Harbur loves to entertain even when hes talking about his own liver transplant.
By SANGEETA SHASTRY
Special to The Star
His first presentation with his mom, Kim, was at an all-school assembly at Winnetonka High School when he was 8 years old. Now a high school senior himself, hes telling a Blue Valley Southwest High School health class what its like to get a liver biopsy every other year.
He re-enacts a conversation he once had with a doctor while under the influence of laughing gas. He draws medical instruments on the whiteboard, making the science behind his checkups, testing and medications seem like the coolest thing in the world.
Luke tells them he can only drink one beer a month and offers to be everyones designated driver. He explains that he can play any sport he wants. He encourages the students to ask him anything. Nothings off-limits.
And then, when there are no more questions, Luke beatboxes for them. Hes good. He can rap Snoop Dogg while humming and dropping a beat. (A YouTube video shows off his skills.)
Lukes parents, Kim and Nate Harbur of Overland Park, were forced to understand organ and tissue donation early in Lukes life when their youngest son needed a liver transplant at 5 months old. Their case became a high-profile news story: They were the first local family to receive a pediatric liver transplant as a result of a joint effort between Childrens Mercy Hospital and the University of Kansas Hospital.
The Harburs have made education and awareness about organ donation their lifes work. The couple founded Gift of Life, a nonprofit organization that mentors patients who need transplants and goes into high school classrooms just like this one at Blue Valley Southwest to talk to teens about what organ donation really means. The organization has been recognized over the years for the work it does, most recently by the Johnson County Library Foundation with its Pinnacle Award.
Kim Harbur looks on as 30 desks slowly fill up. Backpacks are slung onto the floor. Loud chatter fills the once-silent space. Shes seen this scene hundreds of times before be it here at Blue Valley Southwest or at one of many other high schools around the area. Shes stood in front of thousands of faces just like these in the last year.
The Harburs focus on high schoolers because students this age are getting their drivers licenses, and Kim wants to educate teens about the question theyre asked before theyre handed their cards: Do you want to be a donor?
Kim knows that, statistically, 75 percent of the students she talks to today will say yes to the question shell ask them, and 25 percent will either say no or remain undecided. Whatever their answer, theyre right in Kims book.
I come to you with this incredibly passionate message today, Kim says once the students are settled in. Im not here to convert you or convince you to be a donor. Im here to bring good information to you.
Kim is animatedly drawing students into the conversation by asking questions. Whats an organ donor? What organs do you think people can donate? Why do you think some people say yes to organ donation? Why might someone say no?
The teens are engrossed and slightly disgusted by the prospect of surgeons removing organs from the body. Theyre captivated by the idea of a cornea transplant and the fact that the clear contact lens-sized body part must be sewn onto an organ recipient. They chuckle when Kim mentions that Luke says girls think his scar is hot.
Amidst some of the humor, heavier subjects come up. Kim talks about religion and spirituality, reinforcing that any beliefs the students have are right. She tells them that organ donors can have open casket services, if they so choose. Deaths from the news and from personal memories that led to organ donation are discussed.
So are stories of organ recipients the students know. One says his aunt received a kidney from her husband. Another girls uncle received a kidney as well. Yet another student says her grandfather got a new heart.
These classes go far beyond the little red heart on drivers licenses.
Meet the Harburs.
Theres Nate, a father and an attorney who has his own practice that handles primarily civil and commercial litigation and personal injury cases. Hes been working in the legal field in the Kansas City area since 1977.
Then theres Kim. She grew up in Olathe, graduated from Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., with degrees in physical education and dance and ran her own dance studio for 25 years. She taught 3-year-old tiny tutus, high school seniors and every age in between. At its peak, the studio had about 500 students.
I was always a teacher at heart, she said. So I have transitioned from the dance teaching world into teaching students. Its just a different topic. My style is very similar in both settings, and for me to walk out of a classroom and know Ive made a difference is very powerful.
The couples first son is Cole, whos 19 and turning 20 in April. Hes a graduate of Pembroke Hill School and currently a sophomore at Elon University in Elon, N.C. Hes majoring in entrepreneurship and minoring in environmental studies, and his younger brother calls him one smart, smart kid.
Hes a little quieter than Luke, and Kim says hes tenderhearted and a good listener. He shares a love of music with his brother Cole sings in an a capella group at Elon.
And finally, theres Luke, the baby of the family. Hes a high school senior studying drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts High School Academic Program, which only accepts 26 drama students 13 boys and 13 girls each year. Just four of them come from outside the state.
Lukes a newcomer to Winston-Salem, N.C., from Olathe specifically, Olathe East High School, where his love of theater led him to participate in a summer workshop at the school before applying there for his final year before college.
I wanted to go because I wanted to ask my question constantly: Do you want to be an actor, and do you want to make a very large financial investment to get an acting degree, Luke said.
He now is considering pursuing broadcast journalism in college. Hed love to be a correspondent for CNN or a smiling face on Good Morning America.
As long as Im doing a job thats helping people, entertaining people or at least being a turning point in their day, thats whatll really count in the end, he said. If I could pick my top goal in life, I would love to be the next Jimmy Fallon/Oprah.
Its clear hes cut out for that kind of career when he presents to other high schoolers with his mother, as he did at Blue Valley Southwest during his winter break.
He has a personality that Kim describes as very big in life. Yet hes humble and personable and warm, too. As an artist, Luke commends audiences for sharing hours of their day to watch a performance. Thats the kind of person he is.
He says one word sums up his attitude toward life: optimism.
I guess like any human being, we go through our ups and downs, but in any down that Ive been through, theres always some brighter light about it because there are things you can learn from every single experience, he said.
Hes keenly aware that hes been given a second chance at everything.
A goal just isnt a goal, Luke said. Its something that I have to strive toward. I have to go get it.
Having a second chance changed how he lives.
Its completely brightened my life.
I believe our messes in our lives become our messages, Kim says at the beginning of her presentations. Sometimes our failures are what become our successes.
Her mess happened in 1995, when Luke was diagnosed with liver failure as an infant. Within months, the parents were told that 5-month-old Luke needed a transplant to survive.
It was presented in a clinical way that made it even harder, Nate said. We didnt know anything about transplantation. It sounds like extremely complicated surgery. We started reading and trying to figure it out.
Six months later, an 8-year-old Olathe boy named Aaron was on a family camping trip in rural Missouri when he suffered an allergic reaction that closed his throat in 30 seconds. By time he reached the hospital in Springfield, he had gone about 30 minutes without oxygen.
The testing told his family that Aarons condition wasnt going to improve and that hed likely remain in a vegetative state. His parents and grandparents met with doctors that evening. Aarons dad, Kris Drake, asked the neurologist point-blank whether the man had a son, and what hed do if this were his child.
I would probably pull the plug, because theres no hope, the neurologist told the family.
The Drakes were told that Aaron could only donate one kidney until he was brain dead, which would likely happen two or three days later. The family waited, wanting to give Aaron every chance he had. They wanted him to be able to donate his other organs, too.
Kris had thought about organ donation before, when a friends father was ill and died waiting for a heart transplant. Kris knew he wanted to be an organ donor.
The next day, the phone rang for the first time in Aarons hospital room. Puzzled, Kris took the call from a nurse and heard the voice of a chaplain from the Drakes church. Aarons Sunday school teacher knew of an 11-month-old boy in Olathe who needed a liver.
The teacher also happened to be a client at Kim Harburs dance studio.
Kris and his wife, Melody, didnt know much about direct donation, but after meeting with organ donation representatives the next night and holding another family meeting, they agreed to see if Aaron was a match for the 11-month-old, who was first on the transplant waiting list in Kansas City.
Blood tests taken at noon the following day showed that Aaron Drake was brain-dead. The tests were repeated around 4:30 p.m.
The Drakes made the long trip home to Olathe in silence that evening. Kris remembers just driving and praying.
I kept asking God, Why do you do this? Kris said. I know theres a purpose, what is it? God basically said organ donation is like my gift of salvation. You cant buy it. You cant earn it. Its simply a free gift. I thought, Wow. Thats really powerful.
Thats how the Harburs see organ donation as a gift. The tragedy of the situations organ donors and their families face is apparent, Nate said.
It was a very humbling experience to go through, he said of Lukes transplant. Gift of Life was our way of really trying to take that experience and make it work toward the positive.
Looking back, Kris says even though the situation he was thrust into certainly wasnt one he would have chosen, he can see purpose.
Its just great to see all the people who benefited from it and really to see how that one thing led the Harburs to have this passion, he said.
Its been almost 18 years since Aaron Drake donated his liver and Luke Harbur had his life-changing transplant. In that time, organ and tissue donation groups in the Kansas City area have taken significant strides toward educating people before they might be forced to make donation decisions. While Kris and Kim both say Gift of Life cant take all the credit, the organization has helped make a big difference in the communitys awareness about donation.
Weve heard anecdotal stories about how people have become donors because of something they heard about us or Kims program, Nate said, shaking his head and smiling. When you think about a life being saved, it makes you feel great.
Kris has served on Gift of Lifes board, including as president. Kim and Nate look to him for his input to help keep the representation of experiences on the board balanced. Hes spoken at annual events in schools and at nursing programs. Hes been at the vast majority of events Gift of Life has hosted.
The organization is now part of who he is.
Its part of my fabric, Kris said. Its what God asked me to do.
And as recently as 2008, Kris again saw the impact of organ and tissue donation. He broke his tibia after a skiing accident, and the bone he received from a donor helped him walk again.
Donation is absolutely critical to someone elses survival, he said. Your loved one is gone either way. You cant bring them back. Its whether youre going to take your tragedy and make it someone elses miracle, or whether its going to be a total tragedy for everyone.
The idea for Gift of Life was sparked when Nate and Kim were confronted with Lukes transplant and realized they knew very little about how the process worked. Nate says he had a knee-jerk reaction to the topic of organ donation it was something he just didnt want to think about, and the Harburs realized he wasnt the only one who felt that way.
After Lukes procedure, Kim was asked to be a mentor for other parents who had children in a similar situation at Childrens Mercy.
I wanted to help, but when I went down there, I was a mess, Nate said. I got very emotional.
So he suggested they start a foundation to educate people about donation. Nate and Kim began making phone calls and put together a board of directors. From 1998 to 2000, their first project was the installation of a fountain at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in honor of Aaron Drake. The Harburs donated the centerpiece, and the fountain bears a plaque telling the families story with Aaron and Lukes handprints cast on either side.
Gift of Lifes Life Savers program, which takes the message of organ donation education into high schools, started with conversations among groups of high schoolers in the Harburs living room. It began moving into schools around the region, and now, Kim and Gift of Life volunteers go into more than 90 of them each year. Last year, Kim says, she educated 26,000 students.
The Life Savers program is modeled after an initiative begun by Robert Redfords son, James Redford, who had a liver transplant about the same time Luke did. The younger Redfords foundation, the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness, focuses in part on educating teens about organ donation as they get their drivers licenses. Gift of Life collaborated with James Redford early on, Nate says.
The entire organization was headquartered in the Harburs basement for six years, but Gift of Life moved in December 2004 to a north Overland Park office building, a floor down from one of its partners, the National Kidney Foundation.
Gift of Life now has 17 board members and a little more than 190 volunteers 40 who are trained to give classroom presentations and about 100 who are trained to mentor transplant patients.
The organization partners with the Midwest Transplant Network, the organ procurement organization in Kansas and western Missouri that acts as a conduit between organ donors and recipients. The networks CEO has been on Gift of Lifes board for about a year. The citys hospitals, particularly the transplant hospitals, also team up with the organization.
Today, the large dry-erase wall calendar in Kims office is packed only a few days dont have a school visit penned in. She goes into high schools that have full-body searches for weapons, private schools, juvenile detention centers and even a school in a rural community with a total of 29 students and a graduating class of eight.
As parents, Kim says, she and Nate didnt hover over their sons. Especially Luke.
I didnt want him to feel different, she said. So we just plugged him into the system and let him go. I remember a few people saying, I cant believe youre going to send him to school with all the germs or do some of those activities where you throw him into the masses. But I thought it was important for him to do that so he wasnt in a bubble.
Luke was released to do essentially any physical activity he wanted when he was 6 years old. He was in a church play that sparked his love of the arts. He tried his hand at sports in middle school with track and field including sprinting events and the long jump and basketball.
I have no restraint whatsoever, especially going to this new school, Luke said. I have to take dance classes. I have to work out everyday.
And his days are long. From 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., hes in academic classes, arts classes and rehearsals. He gets lab work done on his blood at the schools health center. He takes medication once on a regimen of 17 pills a day, Lukes now down to two pills in the morning and two in the evening.
He says that as he got older, the transplant and its after-effects the medication, the labs, the visits to the doctor all became part of life as usual. Questions about his scar or why hes so cheery all the time are easy to answer.
I got a second chance to do everything that I do, Luke said. Its pretty hard not to smile at least once a day.
Luke says one of the most poignant memories he has is playing Charlie in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when he was 10 years old and not just because it helped spark his love for the arts.
My donor family was there, he said. After, I ran up to them and was bawling and just kept saying, Thank you. Im a very emotional person in general, but as a 10-year-old realizing something that pretty darn deep its rung with me, and Ive never forgotten it.
The Harburs are very close to the Drake family. Aaron was a middle child; he had two siblings, Tim and Kayla Drake, who were 9 and 6 years old when Aaron died. When Tim got married, Cole and Luke walked Melody Drake, the mother of the groom, down the aisle. Melody easily brushed aside the wedding planners qualms about having two people escort her thats just the way she was, Kim says.
Melody died on March 20, 2012 Luke offers up the date without hesitation. A week before, Luke read her a poem hed written for her. When Melody met with Kim to talk about her services later that week, she asked straightforwardly that the poem be read at the funeral.
Now, Kris is engaged to a lovely, lovely woman, Kim said. The Harburs just had them over for dinner.
Kris says he tries to meet up with the Harburs a few times a year for dinner, just to talk. His son and daughter are both married now his son has a 2-month-old, and his daughters first child is due in June.
Luke is a recognition that there was something positive that came from the tragedy, Kris said. There was a plan, a purpose. To think about taking someones child who wouldve died now here they are, an adult going to finish high school and start college and all the things in life that we all look forward to.
And Luke isnt the only life Aaron touched. His heart went to a young man in Cape Girardeau, Mo. Both of his kidneys were donated one to a woman in her late 30s, whose mother wrote Kris a letter but remained anonymous. Aarons other kidney was donated to a woman in her 60s who lived to spend time with her grandchildren, Kris says.
Kim doesnt take a stance when shes talking to students about organ and tissue donation. In the Harburs book, the decision to donate organs or tissue is an individual choice. But for them personally, donation coincides with their spiritual beliefs and its made them more comfortable discussing difficult end-of-life issues.
Whats great about (donation) is that it crosses all nationalities, races, religions, socioeconomic statuses and everything else, Nate said. Its very universal and nondiscriminatory.
Luke has heard terms associated with organ and tissue donation throughout his life. Hes encountered people who have a variety of opinions on donation and all of the discussion has made him more comfortable talking about death.
Looking ahead to the nearer future, he knows beginning the next phase of his life will pose different challenges for him.
I just really need to keep being responsible when college rolls around, Luke said. Social life can really kick off, and youve got to really consider when youre taking your meds. Youve got to get your labs done.
And when he gets even older, just paying for it all is something to think about, he says.
But as he climbs the stairs and walks into the bedroom of the same house he came home to after his transplant, pulls out his ukulele and begins to strum and sing so his voice echoes in the foyer, its clear that Luke fully believes a phrase he often repeats.
Life is good.