Kathy S. Harkey
I first met my future wife Kathy Harkey during the summer of 1988. Out of the blue she invited me to her 32nd birthday party. Her beauty alone compelled me to accept the invitation. From the moment I walked in, I knew I was in the presence of a most remarkable individual. At the time, Kathy was a single mother struggling to raise and support two young children, pursue a career in industrial hygiene with Texaco and somehow have time for a limited social life, which I am pleased to say, included me, Don Harkey. We were married a year later and so began the journey of a lifetime.
Kathy was born on August 1, 1956 in Pauls Valley, Oklahoma to Nick and Iris Portacci. She grew up in Galveston, Texas, but the family eventually moved to Port Arthur, Texas where she along with her five brothers and sisters inspired the book she later wrote about her life“The Wild Portacci’s”. After graduating co-valedictorian in 1974 from Stephen F. Austin High School, she attended Lamar University and graduated with a degree in biology with honors in 1979. She lived in Beaumont, Texas in the early 1980s where she had our oldest children Shawn and Sadie and began her 15-year career with Texaco.
Kathy worked for Texaco from the early 1980s until 1993 when she co-founded ICU Environmental Health and Safety. She and her dedicated staff grew this company from a fledgling start up to a regional consulting powerhouse with over 60 employees and $5 million in annual billings. For 17 years, ICU was one of the largest and most reputable health and safety companies in the gulf coast. She loved mentoring young professionals and launched many on highly successful careers. The company was sold to Total Safety in 2010 where she assisted BP with their employee and contract safety during the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Countless lives were undoubtedly saved by her tireless efforts to improve health and safety conditions in facilities throughout the gulf coast.
In 1996, in order to find reasonably priced real estate for the fledgling ICU, our family including Shawn, Sadie and Kate (born in 1991), moved to The Woodlands, Texas. Kathy had always wanted a family friendly environment that was both peaceful and beautiful, and for over 15 years, we lived happily in our little piece of heaven.
Kathy enjoyed reading, writing, cooking and travel but most of all she cherished gatherings and activities with her family, friends and neighbors. On my 50th birthday, she managed to pull off a 100 plus person surprise party. Guests came from all over the country and all without my knowledge (and I don’t think I’m really that dense). The cunning, thoughtfulness, love and planning touches me to this day. A remarkable person in every way.
Kathy was also a master storyteller. She could repeat the same stories over and over with such a captivating style it would keep her children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren in rapt attention for hours. During her 2 1/2 year struggle with cancer is actually when she wrote “The Wild Portacci’s” book detailing much of her early life growing up in Port Arthur along with a number of other poems and letters.
Our whole world changed in January 2012. Kathy found a small lump on her right breast. Testing confirmed what we immediately feared and expected, invasive ER+ breast cancer in three different locations. After weighing the limited options, she elected to immediately begin a series of chemotherapy treatments prescribed by the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in The Woodlands. The treatments went on for six agonizing months. She was sick much of the time, lost her hair and, worst of all, lived with the fear of “What if this doesn’t work?”. During May 2012 there was, however, a spark of joy that came with the birth of our first granddaughter, Emma. This was the best medicine yet and gave her the will and strength to battle on. The chemotherapy continued through July but was only partially (30%) successful and in August, 2012 she had a right side mastectomy. The cancer had also spread to two of the lymph nodes causing all the lymph nodes on that side to be removed as well. Annoying lymphodema and weeks of the daily grind of radiation followed. Finally, in November, her doctor delivered the first good news. She said testing indicated that there was no evidence of cancer and she had a 90+% chance of five-year survival. The champagne flowed!
Unfortunately our joy was short lived. After a trip to Germany to visit our daughter Kate, Kathy was admitted to a German hospital with breathing issues related to the radiation. While these problems were not directly cancer related, abdominal CT scans back in Houston found that the cancer had tragically spread to the liver and was now metastatic and incurable. We were devastated. Tears flowed and countless sleepless nights followed. Kathy, however, was upbeat and resilient and up for the challenge of her life. In the Spring of 2013 more chemotherapy followed as well as a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic and three separate clinical trials. In August 2013 she witnessed first hand the birth of our second granddaughter Iris. Despite feeling terrible, she was in the delivery room with Sadie offering the support and encouragement that was just in her nature. The cancer was largely held in check until late 2013 when the cancer relentlessly continued its’ spread in the liver and was now in her bones as well. Two hip fractures left her in a wheelchair and her last months were indeed difficult.
Remarkably, she kept an upbeat attitude to the end. She was the ultimate planner and nothing was left undone. My miniature Schnauzer Trixie was even planned. After some particularly bad news in March of 2013 she, unbeknownst to me, began looking for a dog to keep me company after she was gone. Trixie still keeps me company and I sometimes see Kathy’s spirit in her.
Kathy was always deeply religious. Through all the pain, heartbreak and misery, Kathy never lost faith that God was walking beside her and in the end when she herself could no longer walk, carrying her leaving only his “Footprints in the Sand.” On April 21, 2014 Kathy passed away surrounded by all her loved ones.
The world is a far emptier place without Kathy. However, her memory will forever live on through her husband, children, grandchildren and all the people that loved her. We especially hope that the Kathy S. Harkey Breast Cancer Foundation will continue Kathy’s life work of always giving to others. Although Kathy lost her battle with breast cancer, she has inspired a way to save women and families fighting the same heartbreaking disease with the ultimate goal of victory still at hand-a cure. Fight on!