It was his words that gave Lisa the comfort and courage she needed to face her own death, which, doctors say, will come soon. The 17-year-old West Salem High School senior is in hospice, spending her final days in her living room at home, where a glass door opens to a large backyard with a red barn and tall grass.
Sunflowers sit in a vase on her nightstand. At the base of her bed is a black pillow embroidered in hot pink thread with her favorite Bible passage: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength — they shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary.”
Lisa listens to peaceful music and drifts in and out of sleep. She is brave and has her own message for those she will leave behind. It’s the same one she’s preached the past three years, even as she has suffered through painful cancer treatments, tests and nearly a dozen surgeries: Stay positive and keep faith.
In recent weeks, Lisa’s health has taken a turn for the worse. Doctors have told her mother, Gail Harder, three times that Lisa is near the end. Just when it seemed it might be true, the news came: Lisa’s classmates at West Salem High School had nominated her for homecoming court.
“When Lisa got the news, she was near death,” her mother, Gail said. “Her color tone was changing, her body was shutting down and all of a sudden, when her friends brought her the crown, it changed her whole process of thinking.”
Lisa began eating again, and she grew stronger. She wanted that one last opportunity to be surrounded by her friends. She wanted that one piece of her senior year of high school she never got to experience.
“She didn’t want to miss it,” Gail said. “She would have crawled there.”
And so Friday, Sept. 21, four people struggled to dress Lisa in her beautiful gray gown. She vomited six times that day from being moved, but she didn’t complain.
The medication she takes keeps her from shaking, but it also prevents her from smiling. Later, when she saw herself on TV, she was worried people would think she hadn’t been happy to be crowned homecoming queen.
“She was smiling inside,” her mother said. “When they announced her queen, one hand came up a little bit, and I think she was doing a thumbs up. She was so excited, tears were streaming down her face.”
Her king? Tyler Prosser, who is also 17 and a senior at West Salem High School. He joined her in a wheelchair, not out of pity, but because he has the same type of cancer that is killing Lisa; the same type that killed Randy.
Sadly, Randy, Lisa and Tyler are three of six West Salem youths, ages 6 to 21, who have been diagnosed with cancer in the past four years. Five of the six were diagnosed with the same type: osteosarcoma, an aggressive, insidious bone cancer.
“Osteosarcoma tends to happen in teenagers. That’s the peak age of when we see it,” said Dr. Suman Malempati, a pediatric oncologist at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital who has worked with both Lisa and Tyler. “There’s talk about what it has to do with growth spurts. There’s a special stage of development these adolescents are going through when they get cancer.”
He said osteosarcoma is rare; the survival rate is about 60 percent.
“More than half of kids are cured. But we often can’t, in the beginning, know who that’s going to be,” he said. “For every kid, there’s a significant chance they will go through all this treatment and not survive.”
He is honest with his patients. There is no minimizing the truth with a teenager.
Of the six West Salem youths, three have died and three are living. Only one did not attend Walker Middle School.
Darian King had it first in his left leg. Randy Bultena had it next in his left ankle. It started in Lisa Harder’s right shoulder. Tyler Prosser had it in his knee. A fifth teen, who wishes to be unnamed, had it in her back and leg. She went through chemo and her scans have come back cancer free, her mother said. She is now attending college.
Frida Salinas, who was originally from West Salem but attended Sprague High School, had pancreatic cancer.
Parents say there has to be some reason their children would all “catch” the same type of cancer in such a short time frame, as if it were contagious. There are plenty of theories. There have been jokes that someone should call Erin Brockovich, but humor falls flat at a time when loss is so conspicuous.
It could be a coincidence.
“I’m sure the question has been raised by lots of people,” said Ed John, principal at West Salem High. “I’m hoping it’s just an unfortunate coincidence. It seems disproportionately too many, but one is too many.”
There are too many unknowns as to why a once-healthy girl who loves horses and volleyball could be dying three years later in the living room of her home, with her fingernails painted neon pink.
These six West Salem youth are connected by cancer, but they are not defined by it. Theirs are stories of maintaining extraordinary courage and composure in the depths of uncertainty. Theirs are stories of keeping faith when hope is lost.
“The one thing Randy didn’t want people to focus on was his cancer,” said his mother, Lenette Bultena. “He wanted people to focus on living life to the fullest and loving each other and being good to each other. He didn’t want his whole life to be about cancer.”
The six have inspired their families, friends, classmates and strangers.
“The day-to-day issues of high school drama are not important compared to what these students are going through,” John said. “The kids are an inspiration to others in terms of their resilience and positive attitudes.”
Imagine being 21 years old and cancer is consuming your body. Imagine knowing that you probably will die. Imagine that your younger peers, who have the same type of cancer, are watching to see how your story ends.
What would you do?
What Randy Bultena did was give them hope. Even when his body was failing, he still handed out hope.
Bultena was diagnosed in early 2009, when he was a senior at West Salem High School. His diagnosis came just one week before Lisa Harder’s, who was an eighth-grader at Walker Middle School at the time. Both were athletes, which is how their cancer journeys began.
Lisa’s soreness came in her right shoulder. Randy’s came after spraining his left ankle playing a pick-up game of basketball.
The two became “chemo buddies” at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland. They had the same cancer and were from the same town. It was a natural friendship, even though Randy was several years older.
“I’ve seen these amazing connections that form,” Doernbecher’s Malempati said. “We have a lot of support services at Doernbecher, but I don’t think there’s anything like the support of another kid who is going through the same thing.”
Randy underwent chemo and was cancer free by September 2009. But cancer is fickle and in February of this year, it came back. In early June, doctors gave him four months to live. He lived almost two.
“He had a really strong faith in God; a really good relationship with Jesus,” his mom, Lenette, said. “He told me once, ‘Mom, this is a win-win for me. I’m either going to beat it or go to heaven.’ ”
Lenette said her son was able to talk up until an hour before he died July 29 at home.
In his final hours, he had a message for Lisa Harder, and he had one for Tyler Prosser as well.
“Randy told his mom to tell me everyone is different, and I shouldn’t let what happened to him bring me down and to keep fighting.”
It’s that message, in part, that helps Tyler maintain a positive attitude as he fights for his life. Every person is different. Every case is different. When Tyler was diagnosed March 30 with osteosarcoma, Randy became a source of inspiration for the teen.
The West Salem High senior was texting friends when he took a recent phone call in his hospital room at Doernbecher, where he is undergoing chemotheraphy. His hair is gone. His jawbone is sharp; his frame is thin. He won’t be playing football this season, he said. He is taking it one day at a time.
“It’s difficult, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “But stuff happens. You just have to live with it.”
Darian King was a typical little boy who loved to run, jump, play and “attack” his dad, Craig King, said with a laugh.
In 2008 at age 5, Darian was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. He spent 10 months in treatment, and just like Randy, seemed to have beat the disease. But at his three-month check, doctors delivered the devastating news that the cancer had spread to his lungs.
He died April 29, 2009. But Darian’s story doesn’t end with cancer. His parents, Craig and Abby King, founded 4Him2Day in January 2010.
The nonprofit supports local families in treatment for pediatric cancer through financial assistance, emotional support and acts of service. It could be as simple as mowing the lawn or offering a grocery store gift card. 4Him2Day has touched the families of Lisa, Tyler and Frida.
But perhaps the most important aspect of the foundation is building connections between families so they know they are not alone.
“We can be there to support one another,” Craig said.
Vanessa Caballero, Frida’s mom, had on her bravest face during a recent volleyball game at Sprague High School. She didn’t cry, even when others did. She didn’t cry, even when her daughter’s friends stopped to hug her.
A large canvas bearing Frida’s flawless face and gentle brown eyes caught the attention of anyone who walked through the doors. Frida would have celebrated her 18th birthday Sept. 15. Vanessa was there selling purple “Fight for Frida” T-shirts, wristbands and buttons in honor of her daughter, who, before her death May 2, had expressed the desire to raise money for other families with pediatric cancer.
During her 2½-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Frida always received the help she needed. 4Him2Day provided her family with gas and grocery cards. Volunteers tended to her family’s garden. Frida wanted to pay it forward.
“Her desire was to help other families with pediatric cancer,” Vanessa said.
Along the sidewalk leading to Lisa Harder’s front door is an angel statue facing inward. A chalkboard at the top of the steps reads, “Home of Princess Lisa.” It was posted when she was nominated to homecoming court.
Now that she’s been voted queen, the sign will have to change.
On a recent late afternoon before the homecoming game, Lisa was just lucid enough to nod her head when asked if she was excited for the festivities. The past three years of her cancer journey, she has rarely complained or been afraid. She has given speeches at various schools and churches encouraging people to stay positive and to be grateful.
Lisa slept most of the weekend after the game. It’s up to her now if she wants to relax and let go, her mother said. The pastor from Court Street Christian Church visited Sunday. He pointed out that Lisa wasn’t wearing her homecoming crown.
The teen’s spirit still hasn’t been broken.
“Give it to me,” she told him, “and I’ll put it on.”
Cara Pallone is a storyteller reporter. Reach her at (503) 399-6744 or cpallone@StatesmanJournal.com. See her blog at StatesmanJournal.com/insidestories.