• Dru Rosenthal

"Cancer is the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

If you want to know someone who views life with the glass half full, meet Carson Harnden, our Assistant Manager for Janitorial Operations.

“Cancer is the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” said Carson Harnden, as we met to chat about his career growth during his two years at Relay.

All I could think about when Carson said this was a quote that I remembered from childhood:

“You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think, and twice as beautiful as you’d ever imagined.” — A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

What we go through in life shapes us. If you want to meet someone who views life with the glass half full, meet Carson Harnden. This man has an outlook that is optimistic, grateful, and inspirational.

The summer before sixth grade, 11-year-old Carson was wrestling with friends and hit his knee on a rocking chair. Well, this bump swelled up – quite a bit. Kids don’t want to miss out on things, and Carson was no exception – he hid the bump on his knee from his mom. Kids also have days where they want to get out of going to school, and Carson, again, was no exception – he showed his mom the bump on his knee. Next thing he knew he was at the doctor’s office.

On September 11, 2001, Carson was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. He came home from the doctor to see on television the twin towers in New York City falling.

He was told he had a 2-5% chance of living and immediately began a regimen of vigorous chemotherapy, three weeks on and two days off as an inpatient at Emanuel Children’s Hospital. Time passed and Carson was sent home, as the tumor in his knee was not responding to chemotherapy. “I was told to go home and get comfortable,” said Carson, “and I didn’t know what that meant!” Doctors finally said he had two weeks to two months to live.

A few days passed and the next thing he knew, Carson was off for a stay at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. Doctors again began aggressive chemotherapy treatment but as the tumor was still not responding, they gave Carson two options:

1. Save his leg by removing the cancer and inserting a metal rod to accommodate his growth to adulthood. This means every time he had a growth spurt, Carson would have had to have surgery to lengthen the rod, knowing at some point in the future, he would still have to have his entire leg fully amputated. (“It wouldn’t work for the long term, as my biological Dad is 6’7”!”, exclaimed Carson.)

2. Save his leg by having a new surgery (at the time) called “Rotationplasty.” This includes undergoing a resection of the malignant bone tumor around the knee. The affected bone is resected, and the tibia (bone below the knee) is rotated 180 degrees to form a functional knee joint.

Carson ended up choosing the Rotationplasty. What was once his ankle now functions as his “knee.”

The surgeon who did this new surgery, Dr. Joseph Krajbich, was right here in Portland at Shriners’ Hospital,” said Carson. “I was initially thinking that I didn’t want to do this, and Dr. Krajbich came back to me a month later at Doernbecher and told me I HAVE to do this surgery to save my life!” The doctor invited Carson to the hospital to show him the prosthetic leg options. Carson was convinced and immediately agreed to the surgery.

Carson was admitted to Shriners and had the 14-hour surgery the very next morning.

“The dude (Dr. Krajbich) never talks,” laughed Carson. “But he blasts The Rolling Stones as he does the surgery! When I woke up, I could wiggle my toes! Then I fell asleep for two days.”

“Never be ashamed of a scar. It simply means you were stronger than whatever tried to hurt you.” — Unknown

“It’s been quite a journey,” said Carson. “Six years of intense therapy to learn how to walk and run again. Cancer is the greatest thing that ever happened to me – and the surgery. I would never take any of the experience back.” The people Carson has met have had a significant impact on him. There was the kid who encouraged him to have the surgery when he was in the hospital. Carson ended up naming his son after him.

And all the kids he has worked with as a counselor at Camp Ukandu for the last 13 years, a camp he went to, when he was young. (Camp Ukandu is the largest and longest-running provider of medically supervised camp available to children battling childhood and adolescent cancer.) This is where Carson met his future adoptive parents, Emily and Ed Harnden, who were camp volunteers.

It's been 21 years since that fateful day. Carson believes this all happened for a reason and that this is the path he was meant to take. “My experience made me find confidence to just be me. There were days as a kid that people would make fun of me. But I’ve made the best of it. I love wearing shorts so that if someone wants to look at my leg, here’s their chance! In fact, at one point I had the Abbey Road album cover around my leg.”

Carson takes this attitude and applies it to work as well. His first job was as a bag/cart boy at Fred Meyer. “I never mark on the application that I’m disabled,” said Carson. “I just work harder. I lost a limb but it’s what you make of it.”

He recalled his stint at Stanley Steemer. His supervisor on the job saw him slip on the wet carpet and realized for the first time that Carson had a prosthetic device for his leg. “He didn’t want to work with me,” said Carson, “and made me go sit in the truck as a person ‘like me’ shouldn’t be doing this kind of job!” Let’s just say, that Carson stuck it out and ultimately became THIS man’s boss.

“I don’t need people making assumptions about me,” said Carson. “Defining me without knowing me – I define my leg; my leg does not define me.”

There were a few more jobs along the journey, including working at the Nike Employee Store (Nike sponsored Carson to run for them), and then Carson studied to become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), taking him full circle. He began working at Shriners Children’s Hospital. And then COVID hit, and he was laid off as they couldn’t give him enough hours.

“I went through an identity crisis when I was laid off as a CNA – it was really tough. I got to Relay because two people gave me a shot: Scott (Sitton) and Cameron (Stewart). I owe everything to these two!” exclaimed Carson.

Carson started as a Supervisor of Janitorial Specialists, was promoted to Lead Supervisor and then to his current role as Assistant Manager, Janitorial Operations.

Carson now reports to Cameron, the VP of Building Solutions. “People mix us up all the time,” he laughed. “It’s hysterical!” While Cameron has known Carson since he started with Relay two years ago, he’s really gotten to know him over the past three months, following changes in the Janitorial team reporting structure this past January.

Carson learned about opportunities for professional development by “asking Cameron where I could go! I got here because of my team around me and because of all our hard work,” he said. “I love what I do. It’s important to have fun while you are working. Hanging out with the crew or people at the HUB – there is never a single dull moment I would give up,” mentioned Carson.

“Our team of eight encompasses what Relay is all about. We have janitor’s floor care, disinfectant technicians, high dusting, pressure washing – and we do this for the entire company. My goal is to double the team to 16. This is a trade and has greater compensation!”

Carson’s favorite part of his job is being with new employees and showing them the before and after. “I love seeing how the training clicks – they see how it’s done and get it!” In fact, Eric D. Nash, Account Executive, HD Supply witnessed Carson’s style of management and said, “Carson was so encouraging to the employee he was working with. When he needed to correct the employee, he did it with such honor and grace I was like WOW. This is just one instance of how impressed I am of him.”

And Cameron agrees. “What I love about Carson is the positive energy he brings to everything he does and everyone around him. Whether it’s his team, the Janitorial Specialists or his teammates on the janitorial leadership team, Carson has a knack for bringing out the best in others. His dedication to training and developing his team to excel in their craft and finding creative ways to meet people where they’re at really sets Carson apart.”

Carson is especially excited about developing his team. As he has grown, he too is providing pathways to growth for others. He was integrally involved in training, but now Beth DeGuire has taken the lead in this role. “Beth believed in the process and through hard work and training, is taking this position to a new level,” he enthused.

When Carson started, his team did one job a night and often had to go back and redo the job. “Now we do three to four jobs a night!” said Carson, with pride.

Carson’s day is anything but average, beginning around 6am. “I meet with contracts to determine what we can do to improve our relationship with the client, based on agreements we have made. The goal is to get rid of contractors and do 100% of any job!”

Then he connects with the location managers and walks the buildings that were cleaned the previous evening, ensuring the work is above “Relay standard.” Next, he meets with Sarah Hill, to go over equipment needs to make sure everything is ready for his technicians at the job sites.

"Sarah has done a fantastic job,” said Carson. “She makes sure our equipment is in great shape.”

At the end of the shift, Carson meets with Beth DeGuire to prep for the upcoming evening. He likes to visit the different job sites to touch base with those ‘in the trenches’ and to meet the new people on the job to see how they are doing. “I still get in there and clean,” laughed Carson. “I’m happy to show them how it’s done, to motivate and inspire!”

Having a team that works together and helps one another grow and succeed gives Carson a sense of deep satisfaction. “When I look at my team, I think of them as my family. We are a tight-knit group. It’s one of the coolest things!” gushed Carson.

Cameron added, “He’s got a great vision for the Janitorial Specialist team, and I can’t wait to see how far they go!”

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