Rob Parsons

Rembering Chris Harstad

West Mauian carved his own niche, despite hardships

by Rob Parsons

November 26 , 2009

The business card he handed me many years ago read, "West Maui Big Kahuna," fitting for the tall, athletic Colorado native who moved to Maui in 1988, following an older brother who lived in Lahaina. I met Christopher Harstad during my previous incarnation as owner/operator of Grand Wazoo Piano Moving, and he often helped provide muscle for deliveries. Chris would always arrive by bicycle, always shirtless. In fact, Chris never owned a car, and with good reason.

Soon after arriving on Maui, Harstad had his first epileptic seizure. Initially, he experienced them once or twice a month. But despite medication, their frequency increased to two or three times weekly. His illness made it challenging for him to hold steady employment and provide for himself. Yet he lived with great passion—for educating others about his disease, for advocating bike lane safety and for beach and ocean sports.

Chris Harstad died earlier this month after suffering another seizure. In an emotional memorial service two weeks ago, family and friends waded into the shore break at D.T. Fleming's beach—his favorite bodysurfing spot—to spread his ashes.

"Chris really connected with Maui, really loved it there," said brother Mike, who built custom homes on the Valley Isle before moving to Washington state. Chris was the seventh of nine kids, and Mike said he got into a bit of trouble before moving to Maui. "He was sort of the black sheep," said Mike.

Chris was unflinchingly garrulous and outspoken. Rolling a piano through the Ritz-Carlton's hallways in Kapalua, it seemed as though he knew almost everyone employed there.

Over time, he worked at Leilani's and Pineapple Hill restaurants, Drexel Brothers Construction and helped stage events with Ehman Productions, Showpower and ESPN. Chris worked as a production assistant on Xterra, the Mercedes Championship at Kapalua, Kaanapali Classic, Skins Games at Wailea and the Sony Open on Oahu, and was also involved in TV and feature film projects.

His best friend, Blythe Douglas, met Harstad 20 years ago, playing Frisbee on Kaanapali's Dig-Me Beach. They often bodysurfed and enjoyed freestyle beach Frisbee together, and Douglas reached out to help Chris with medical appointments or other obligations so he wouldn't have to depend on the MEO bus schedule.

"Harstad was famous for quoting, 'If you don't have your health, you don't have anything,'" said Douglas. "He was grateful for just the simplest things in life. We are grateful to have had him in our life. He was family to us."

It often took Harsted days to recover after a grand mal seizure. Some years back, I saw Chris for the first time in several months. He had suffered a seizure while cooking at home, and his entire forearm was scarred from second-degree burns.

In late 2004, I lent my Ford F-250 truck, "Big Blue," to a friend for a weekend move. In a lapse in judgment with dramatic consequences, he asked Harstad to drive my truck while he drove his own.

Watching a Sunday morning football game on TV, I was interrupted by a frantic phone call. Rushing to the scene in my wife's car, I arrived at North Kihei Road to find police, ambulance, my friend sitting at the roadside with his head buried in his hands and my truck crumpled into a beachside kiawe tree. Harstad had slipped into a seizure while driving, rear-ended a few cars, crossed the center-line and drifted off the road. While the truck was totaled, amazingly Harstad escaped with minor injuries.

His bicycle was his preferred mode of transportation, and he rode daily. He was adamant about protecting bicyclists by ensuring that cars didn't encroach in designated bike lanes, sometimes yelling at those who did. "I told him he was a Bike Nazi, you know, like the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld," his brother Mike told me. "He just laughed at me."

Bicycling on the curving road near Honolua Bay a few years back, a vehicle swerved into Harstad's bike lane and nearly hit him. He hollered at the driver, who stopped, got out and came at him with a machete. With traffic stopped, Harstad managed to put the attacker in a headlock, at which point the driver's girlfriend came out and started kicking him. Matters were settled in court some months later.

Mike came back to Hawaii in July 2005, when Chris underwent complicated brain surgery in Honolulu to try to control what prescription drugs could not. Symptoms may be controlled by medication for many with epilepsy, wrote Claudine San Nicholas in a Maui News feature about Harstad's operation. But Chris fell into a smaller percentage, roughly one-third, whose maladies were not abated. Thus, Chris was willing to undergo a lobectomy, or temporal lobe resection, after extensive testing to locate the area of the brain responsible for his seizures.

The Maui News article was accompanied by a photo of Harstad, broadly smiling, with his dark hair shorn in a buzz cut and 40 metal staples in a large upside-down U-shaped incision above his left ear. Harstad was optimistic about a better life following the surgery—but it was not to be.

Two years ago, Chris finally received a full Social Security disability judgment for his illness. He also found help through Section 8 housing, and the Food Stamps program. He applied for and received a medical marijuana card to help moderate strong side effects from his anti-seizure medicine, but could not maintain the cost.

Chris called me periodically over the past year, imploring me to write a story helping to educate police and first responders about medical alert bracelets. Apparently, he had a post-seizure event where he left his home one night disoriented and unclothed, and was tasered by police, who must have thought him to be on drugs and dangerous.

Chris was deeply upset by this event. He didn't want to condemn the Maui Police Department for what happened, only to shine a light on the special needs of those who wear medical ID bracelets.

"He wanted to make sure the police were aware of this issue," said brother Mike. "He designed a poster with a peace sign on it, and he wanted it posted in the MPD locker room." He wanted badly for his side of the story to be told, added Douglas, and to emphasize that taser guns should not be abused.

I told Douglas I felt a bit guilty I hadn't always returned Chris's messages, or found time to bring his story into print—until now. "I think we've all felt that way at some point," Douglas replied. "Lately [his wife] Clarissa and I asked ourselves, 'did we do enough?'"

As we gather with our 'ohana for Thanksgiving, we can be grateful for many things, including good health. And as waves thunder from the first big ocean swell of the season, you can bet that riding on one of them is the spirit of the West Maui Big Kahuna, Christopher Harstad.