It’s the season of hope, joy and love. We found it all – plus plenty of determination – in these three wellness journeys.
By Elizabeth Kane | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Harper Harrell is the epitome of bravery. “Harper sparks joy,” Heather Hindin says of her 9-year-old daughter. “She’s a kid who’s resilient.” Harper is strong for a reason. On Oct. 14, 2021, the then 8-year-old was told she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“Harper was sitting on my lap,” Heather says, recounting the day they learned the diagnosis at Duke University Hospital. “Thankfully, she couldn’t see my face.” Heather says it was important to her to manage the gravity of that moment, “not losing control or mak[ing] her feel even more fearful.”
Harper remembers that day clearly as well. “I was feeling frustrated and kind of mad at myself,” she says. “[I thought], ‘What did I do wrong? What could I have done to change this?’” She turned to her mother for answers. “Her immediate questions were, ‘Am I going to die?’” Heather says. “And I said, ‘No, you’re in the right place. We’re going to take care of you. The doctors know what they’re doing.’ Then, shortly after that, she asked if she was going to lose all of her hair. … And it’s these questions that just feel heartbreaking, and nobody ever prepares you for how to answer them.”
So, what do you do when you’re a young girl and cancer comes for you? Harper decided to be courageous. She helped raise $27,000 for The V Foundation for Cancer Research through her “Brave Like Harper” campaign, in which she sold T-shirts that featured her own bright, cheery design that read, “Peace Out, Cancer.”
“Harper … embodies the ‘don’t ever give up’ spirit that Jim Valvano introduced during his own battle,” says V Foundation CEO Shane Jacobson. “The way she continues to fight leukemia is admirable. She has become a champion for cancer research, raising money for the V Foundation during her battle. We are all better because of the inspiration that Harper is every day.”
Heather echoes the sentiment. “I think [Harper] really embodies that ‘never give up’ attitude.” Battling cancer and pushing through chemotherapy treatments is incredibly challenging on the body and the spirit. “[Harper] would be in excruciating pain for days,” Heather says. “You could see her gather her strength and psych herself up to get out of bed or get into bed or … get up and go into the bathroom … battling nausea and vomiting in the middle of the night. I mean, it’s terrifying, and it’s upsetting. [And] every day she wakes up, and she’s happy and sunshiny and ready to do it all over again. Whatever it takes to get better.”
Dr. Hutton Chapman, Harper’s primary physician on her care team and one of the pediatric hematology-oncology fellows at Duke Children’s Hospital, sees her spirit, kindness and strength up close while Harper continues to receive therapies, though her cancer is now in remission. “Harper is just a really bright and lively individual who is wise beyond her years,” he says. “Even when she’s going through hard days herself, [Harper] frequently asks about our other patients, and she’ll still seek out patients who she has met on her own accord [or] who she’s met in the hallway, [and] tries to cheer them up when she sees them.”
Harper has another big fan cheering her on: Mike Krzyzewski, the legendary former head coach of Duke University men’s basketball team and a close family friend. He calls Harper to see how she’s doing and offers his support.
“Harper is awesome,” Mike says. “I’ve had the pleasure to get to know Harper through her mother, Heather, who worked at The Emily Krzyzewski Center. They are a great family and have handled Harper’s battle with strength and perseverance. The way Harper fights leukemia is inspiring. She fights hard, while showing selflessness and passion in fundraising for cancer research to help people like her in the future. Truly incredible.”
“Harper did a couple of events with the Duke basketball team in the Duke University Hospital in the past month or so and has gotten to know the team pretty well,” Heather says. “I’ve been a huge fan forever, but I haven’t gotten to be, like, sitting or standing right in front of them … looking all the way up – they’re so tall!” Harper says. “I feel like they’re my besties now.” Harper has some sage advice for anyone facing challenging times: “If you’re going through something scary, you just need to be as brave as you’ve always been.”
Coping with CRPS: One Woman’s Road to Recovery
“I woke up in extreme back pain,” says Meredith Mooney, recounting the September morning in 2018 when she was roused from her sleep by a sharp, shooting pain in her lower back that went all the way down to her left foot. “I’m not one to go to the doctor for just a little sniffle, but [with this pain], I was like, ‘I can’t tolerate this.’”
The road to healing would be a long, frustrating and tedious journey that took years. She visited neurologists, rheumatologists and spine specialists, one referring her to the next, with no end in sight. She says some physicians “dismissed” her.
“What I heard a lot was, ‘You’re young. Your body will heal. It will be fine,’” says Meredith, who was a 28-year-old assistant director at The Goddard School preschool in Durham when she first started experiencing symptoms. “[One] doctor [told me], ‘I don’t think the pain that you’re in coincides with what the X-ray is showing.’ … She essentially thought it was all in my head.”
Meredith would undergo test after test; sadly, her suffering would only get worse. “[One day], I came out of an MRI not able to feel my left leg,” Meredith says. “ … That pain led [me] to a four-day stay at WakeMed. … [T]hen, my foot turned a black-purple color [and] would change temperature. … It felt as if it had just come out of the freezer.”
Her husband, Tyson Mooney, also noticed that her foot was swelling up. “That’s finally when I got doctors to look at me and say, ‘OK, you’re not making this up,’” Meredith says. “‘Something’s actually wrong with you.’”
Meredith’s fears – compounded by the constant, debilitating pain and still no answers as to why she had these symptoms – began to escalate. “I lost feeling in my leg, and it was, ‘Will I ever walk again?’” Meredith says. “I was leaving the hospital in tears … [thinking], ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to live my life?’”
Meredith was finally diagnosed in 2020 with complex regional pain syndrome, or CRPS, a type of ongoing pain that often affects a patient’s leg, arm or, in Meredith’s case, her foot. That September, she had a spinal cord stimulator implanted, which worked – until it didn’t. “[In September 2021], I had an incident where someone stepped on my foot,” Meredith says. “It just ruined my CRPS, [leaving me] all out of whack.”
Dr. Aashish Jay Kumar, who worked at Duke Health’s Duke Raleigh Hospital Pain Clinic at the time, could see how all the discomfort and frustration was wearing on Meredith. “She was struggling a lot,” Dr. Kumar says.
He began talking to Meredith about considering a StimRouter procedure in November 2021. “The StimRouter would help target her chronic pain symptoms, which were complex in nature,” he says. Using the visual guidance of an ultrasound, the stimulating leads would be placed in her thigh, and an external pulse generator that powers the StimRouter system would be placed over her skin, which she could remove, depending on her activities.
Unfortunately, the procedure wasn’t covered by insurance. Dr. Kumar worried that if this didn’t work for her, Meredith would be stuck with large medical bills on top of her pain and disappointment.
But Meredith was desperate. “[During that conversation], I didn’t really ask Dr. Kumar any questions when he said [the StimRouter] was an option,” she says. She gave him the go-ahead, “because I already had the spinal cord stimulator, [and] nothing really faze[d] me at this point. I [was] just looking for relief.”
In February 2022, Meredith went forward with the procedure. She was fully awake throughout, as only local anesthesia was used on her left thigh. “When my toes felt the stimulation for the first time, I felt almost a release,” Meredith says. “My toes began to relax, and I could feel [them] move for the first time in two years. … Those were glorious minutes of my life.” Meredith finally experienced genuine relief, and confidence in her decision. “It made me feel like I made the right choice,” she says.
The 32-year-old is now an administrative assistant to the executive director of research and accountability for Durham Public Schools and a part-time caregiver for a child with special needs; she’s regained her sense of independence and, rather than dreading what the future might look like, she looks forward to it with optimism. She loves going to N.C. State sporting events with her husband and caring for her pet tortoise, Philip “Phil” Charles. Meredith and Tyson are also active in their church, Bethesda Baptist, where he is a deacon, she’s involved in the youth programming and both are choir members. “Now, I don’t have to think about what I can and cannot do,” Meredith says. “My life is not determined by my pain anymore.”
Trinity School Student Embarks on Spiritual Journey
Gabriel Tempest lets nothing stand in his way when he decides he wants to do something. “He’s a young guy with a really great sense of adventure,” says Kym Gardner, Gabriel’s former middle school teacher and an assistant to the facilities manager at Trinity School of Durham and Chapel Hill. “He’s smart, [and] he’s witty.”
Gabriel met Kym when he was in sixth grade at Trinity School. Kym later taught him in an information technology and logic class in eighth grade. Through the years, the two became friends.
“I think because I lost my father to cancer in 2013, [Kym] kind of filled that role,” Gabriel, now 20 and a student at East Carolina University studying business administration, says. “He was adventurous like my dad.”
One such lifechanging experience that Kym often talked to Gabriel about were his travels on the Camino de Santiago – a network of pilgrimages in Spain leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain – that he took with his wife, Susan Gardner. “Even before the time of Christianity, it was a trail that was understood to have some sort of great spiritual powers,” Kym says.
Gabriel was fascinated by Kym’s accounts and announced his intentions in 2017 to make his own pilgrimage there. Kym was determined to help his young friend, who has a moderate form of cerebral palsy, make it happen. “[Gabriel] just has … a sense of himself that is not defined by his disabilities,” Kym says.
It would take time and creativity for Gabriel to complete his 500-mile journey. Staff members and students in Trinity School’s engineering club pitched in to create a specially designed canopy for Gabriel – one that could assist him in navigating the terrain and combating the weather during his travels. A team of friends and Kym’s family members, including his wife, Susan, would lend a hand if needed as he ventured across the Spanish countryside in 2018, 2019 and 2022.
“There are many routes to Santiago,” Kym says. “… The most popular one and the most historically relevant one … is called Camino Francés – ‘The French Route’ or ‘The French Way.’ It starts on the French side of the Pyrenees, goes over the Pyrenees and then right across northern Spain to Santiago. That’s the route that we took Gabriel.”
“The project was littered with challenges,” Gabriel says. “[But] everyone was ready and willing to contribute. It wasn’t even a question.” Gabriel says it was hard explaining his trip to others, at times, because not everyone who practices Christianity understands pilgrimage in the same way. “I’ve been told, ‘Enjoy your vacation,’” Gabriel says. “I’m like, ‘Hold on – this is not a vacation!’”
“[Gabriel] takes his religious faith really seriously,” Kym says. “He is very conscientious about parsing out what it means to have faith from all the cultural trappings … the stuff that can get mixed up with faith,” Kym says.
“[The experience] showed me what real community is in terms of how the Christian church is supposed to function,” Gabriel says.