A Fight To Be Heard

A rare disorder left him deaf, blind, and quadriplegic. Then the county took away his voice.

After he was shown through the door of Harmon's home in Eagan, Filek saw a frail figure napping on the blue velvet couch. A strange scene for a job interview, he thought.

He sat down next to Harmon, who was now awake. The two began signing and discovered that they had much in common: their passion for trading cards, their love of science fiction—they had even attended the same karate class together as kids.

What was intended to be a 15-minute interview turned into a two-hour conversation of frenzied hand signals and, eventually, a lifelong friendship.

"He's offered me so much wisdom, strength, and support though the years," says the boyish, goateed Filek. "He was there for me when I was having relationship problems, when I was frustrated with school. He's just always been there."

But Filek noticed a change in his friend after the tracheotomy. "I'd come visit him and that brilliant wit and all the fun were gone." Now the two sat in awkward silence, Harmon staring into space.

Filek knew his friend was depressed, but he didn't know how bad it was until March 1999, when he was confronted with his most difficult assignment. Harmon asked him to read a letter aloud to his immediate family: a formal announcement of his intent to go off his respirator and G-tube on June 2, less than three months later. Harmon was essentially pulling the plug on himself.

His reasoning was coldly existential. Life, as he saw it, entailed eating and breathing and moving. And here he was on a G-tube, respirator, and wheelchair. How could he go on living when he embodied all the opposite qualities of life?

Initially, Filek refused to participate, but ultimately decided he had an obligation to communicate his friend's wishes, even if he disagreed.

The Harmons filed into the living room and Filek read the letter. "I cannot bear the idea of living as a machine," Harmon wrote. "I entered this world as a human being and I intend to leave this world as a human being."

His mom pleaded for him to reconsider. His physician, Dr. Olson, begged him not to do it. "I understand why you want to do this," he said. "But I want you to understand how much we don't want you to do this."

But no one could sway him. No one, that is, except an old friend who showed up unexpectedly. Kelly Dunn, whom he hadn't seen in seven years, told Christopher that she didn't want the burden of breaking the news to her six-year-old daughter Megan, whom Christopher had recently met.

"If you do this, you're going to have to be the one who explains it to her," Dunn said.

He couldn't do it.

 

One cold January day in 2000, Harmon received a letter from Hennepin County Adult Services. As Filek read it aloud, Harmon sank into his wheelchair.

The letter informed him that the 84 hours a week of interpreter services paid for by the county were set to expire at the end of the year and would not be renewed. He'd have no lifeline to the outside world, no way to escape the prison of his body.

"Most people don't realize how important communication is," Harmon says. "Communication is the crux of civilization."

With Filek's help, he looked up the Minnesota Disability Law Center and was directed to Bud Rosenfield. The fast-talking, passionate attorney agreed to help.

During four days of testimony in a snug conference room in the offices of Hennepin County Social Services, Rosenfield made his case before the Minnesota Department of Human Services. He argued that interpretive services were essential to Harmon's well-being. Without an interpreter, how would he tell nurses if his G-tube gave him troubles again?

The administrative appeal went before Referee Lawrence Grewach, who split the difference, ruling that Hennepin County was obligated to provide interpreter services for 40 hours each week.

But the county appealed, and District Court Judge Deborah Hedlund ruled in its favor. "Hennepin County does not have a duty to provide Christopher Harmon with interpretive services for any activity he may feel appropriate," she wrote in her March 2001 decision.

With the verdict, Harmon was plunged into solitary confinement. He lay in his bed most of the day, staring at what he could just make out as the ceiling.

His family did what it could to help. His mother hung flashing Christmas lights throughout his room in the hopes of keeping his mind stimulated. Friends scrounged up cash to pay for a few hours with an interpreter, but the money quickly ran out.

Desperate, Harmon contacted Rosenfield. "We have to appeal this," he told him. "I can't live like this."

Rosenfield was willing to carry on, though he wasn't optimistic.

"From here on out, it's only going to get tougher and tougher," Rosenfield said. "It's harder to win at the Court of Appeals level. Do you understand?"

"Yes."

But as summer arrived, it dawned on Rosenfield that the odds might be better than he originally thought. Reviewing the legal documents, Rosenfield realized that because Grewach had granted Harmon the 40 hours of interpreter services a week, the state had admitted that it had at least some obligation to provide for Harmon. The state had sat out the District Court appeal, leaving it to the county to fight. But with the case moving up a level, the Attorney General's Office was forced to play its hand.

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