Incurable form of cancer won't stop 74-year-old Elburn man from helping others

  • Harley Veldhuizen of Elburn has been finding and fixing up medical equipment -- from walkers to motorized scooters to hospital beds -- for more than 30 years and donating them to people in need. And for the past 13 years he's been doing it while dealing with an incurable form of cancer that has him taking daily chemotherapy pills.

      Harley Veldhuizen of Elburn has been finding and fixing up medical equipment -- from walkers to motorized scooters to hospital beds -- for more than 30 years and donating them to people in need. And for the past 13 years he's been doing it while dealing with an incurable form of cancer that has him taking daily chemotherapy pills. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted11/27/2020 6:00 AM

Helping people is just something Harley Veldhuizen does.

And nothing, it seems, will stop him. Not even an incurable form of cancer,

 
Harley Veldhuizen of Elburn wheels out a scooter that he'll refurbish for anyone who needs one but can't afford it. He has a small warehouse space full of donated and found equipment that he fixes up and loans or gives away.
  Harley Veldhuizen of Elburn wheels out a scooter that he'll refurbish for anyone who needs one but can't afford it. He has a small warehouse space full of donated and found equipment that he fixes up and loans or gives away. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

For the past 30 years or so, the 74-year-old Veldhuizen has been collecting, fixing, and loaning out medical equipment for people who couldn't afford it otherwise.

It all started by helping a neighbor.

The wife of a farmer friend of his was having trouble making her way down a long driveway and across the street to their mailbox. Veldhuizen, from Elburn, retrofitted an old walker to add wheels and a seat, a common feature now, but not then, apparently. He even put a little basket on it.

"After that she could push that thing, then sit and rest and go the rest of the way," he said.

"From there it just grew and grew and grew."

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He started going to garage sales to find things as word got around. "There would be two people who needed this and three people who needed that, and I could always find stuff for a couple of bucks and fix it up."

Harley Veldhuizen of Elburn shows off a walker and wheelchair that he has ready to donate to the next person who needs it.
  Harley Veldhuizen of Elburn shows off a walker and wheelchair that he has ready to donate to the next person who needs it. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Then he started getting a lot of equipment from the retirement center where his mother lived.

"When people moved out they would give me walkers and wheelchairs and potty chairs and all kinds of neat stuff, like little tools for putting on your socks," he said.

He kept stockpiling more stuff, and more people kept seeking him out. Doctors and pharmacies in the area would refer people to him to borrow equipment they couldn't afford otherwise.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He stored things in his barn at first. "A lot of it was in need of repair, so I would fix it up and then just loan stuff out."

"Loan" is a loose term. He never initiates getting anything back, though people do contact him when someone he's helped has passed and the equipment isn't needed anymore.

Veldhuizen couldn't say for sure how many people he's helped or how many things he's loaned. "700, 800, maybe more."

Thirteen years ago, though, it almost all came to an end.

Veldhuizen was suffering from internal bleeding and having trouble finding the cause. A specialist eventually found and removed a tumor from his small intestine. Samples were sent to the Mayo Clinic where it was determined it was a gastrointestinal stromal tumor, and he was told there was no cure.

One doctor told him he had two, maybe three months to live.

Harley Veldhuizen of Elburn holds a wheel from a wheelchair that he had replaced the tire on, using a tool he made.
  Harley Veldhuizen of Elburn holds a wheel from a wheelchair that he had replaced the tire on, using a tool he made. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

As he went about getting his affairs in order, a feverish search by his family led to a study at the University of Washington on his type of cancer, which suggested he could be treated with Gleevec, a chemotherapy pill. He's been taking it daily since. It's a drug his physician, Dr. Chris George from Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital in Geneva, called "probably the biggest advance in oncology in the past 25 years."

"From a medical standpoint, he's interesting in that his cancer is incurable," George said. "But he takes the pills daily and it's kept him stable and his scans have looked fine for over a decade."

"But the cool thing is, he's such a wonderful guy, a great humanitarian," George said. "He's so modest about what he does that I probably knew him for seven (years) before he even brought it up.

"I was floored."

Now, through word-of-mouth, Veldhuizen has enough donations to stock a small warehouse that he keeps near downtown Elburn. The space is full of crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, electric scooters and even hospital beds and lift chairs, leaving him just enough room to work and keep everything fixed up for the next person who needs it.

At a time when many are enjoying retirement, Veldhuizen still operates his septic business, Harley Sanitary Service, and maintains his 25-acre farm, in addition to providing medical equipment for anyone who needs it.

All while taking daily chemotherapy pills that he says have kept him from eating breakfast for the past 13 years.

"You get nauseated and there are other side effects," he said. "Guess what, it's just part of it, you feel bad."

But when asked if he thinks that should have earned him a well-deserved break, he acts as if it has never crossed his mind.

"I'm gonna do it until I can't do it anymore," he said. "It's such a rewarding thing that you can't even imagine."

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