April 8, 1963
The name Harmon Killebrew summons I memories of happier times for the hundreds of terminally ill patients around the country whom he visits each year. Some recall the titanic Killebrew blast in 1962 that flew over the leftfield roof and out of Tiger Stadium. Others remember the two-run shot at Metropolitan Stadium in '65 that beat the New York Yankees in a pivotal midseason game and helped spur the Impossible Twins to the World Series. Killebrew, who played most of his games at first or third base, used his Paul Bunyan physique to crush 573 home runs for the Washington Senators, Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals between 1954 and '75 and earned a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Killebrew knows the patients' pain. In May 1990, complaining of a piercing sensation in his neck and back, he was rushed to a hospital and treated for a collapsed right lung and damaged esophagus. Months later, long after he had returned home, he still didn't feel right. A CAT scan revealed an abscess the size of a football nestled behind his lung. Draining the growth required a rib resection and left Killebrew with a four-inch hole in his back. A staph infection entered through the open wound and quickly moved to Killebrew's ankles. Immobilized, the 5'11", 170-pound (40 pounds lighter than his playing weight) Killebrew again was rushed to a hospital, where doctors tried for 10 days to halt the raging infection. "I was in really bad shape," says Killebrew. Finally, doctors and his fianc�e, Nita, conferred and decided that Harmon should go home to die.
At his rented home in Scottsdale, Ariz., Killebrew received attention similar to the hospice care given patients with less than six months to live. However, in December 1990, with constant attention from Nita—and heavy doses of antibiotics—the infection miraculously subsided. "The doctors all said they didn't expect to see me again," says Killebrew, who married Nita shortly after regaining his health. "My wife is the reason I'm alive today."
In 1993, Killebrew purchased that same house from landlord Barry Smith, president and CEO of VistaCare, a company specializing in hospice care. Now Killebrew travels the nation as a spokesman for Smith's company, speaking to doctors and visiting hospice patients. "Hospice is such a tremendous thing," Killebrew says. "Patients seem to reach an inner peace. Society doesn't like to deal with death, but it's a natural part of living."
Never a big talker, Killebrew, 63, developed excellent listening skills, which helped him conduct a pregame radio interview show for 12 seasons while he was playing for the Twins. Now he listens to patients, providing happy memories for them in their final days.