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Death came, but he never waited for it

A son and brother lived his final months inspiring others with his dignity and humor.

By LISA GREENE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


SAFETY HARBOR -- The sweet November air warmed the night enough for short sleeves, and Steve Dumar was young and with his two best friends and the moon shone full.

It made him feel like dancing. And he did. He twirled Kay Icenogle around the parking lot, even though she was his buddy's girlfriend and no music played. He sang a song to help them along.

The parking lot sat outside his hospital. Steve was dying.

But he danced anyway.

"He always made it fun," says his brother, Michael. "Even when it wasn't."

By life's most pretentious measures, Steve was nobody special. At 21, he wasn't famous. He wasn't a great scholar at St. Petersburg Junior College or an athletic standout before he graduated from Countryside High School. He could bowl a 290 and was a Playstation virtuoso, but such skills go unappreciated in high society.

But Steve knew how to laugh. And his joy was infectious.

Steve found out eight months ago. One day he was swimming in the backyard pool with his cousins. The next morning he was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. A tumor was spreading in his chest, pressing against his heart. It took another month to diagnose the leukemia cells taking over his body.

Steve's doctor, Ken Zuckerman, directs medical oncology and hematology at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and sees cancer patients every day. At first, even Zuckerman thought Steve was in denial.

"I learned over time he wasn't," Zuckerman says. "He was just a really tough kid. He was so strong through all of this."

Friends say what worried Steve most was how his death would affect his mother, Patsy, and his brother, Michael. His mother divorced when he was 2, so over the years the trio became a tight-knit unit.

Steve committed himself to a regimen that doctors hoped would save his life. Chemotherapy and radiation. Blood transfusions, a bone-marrow transplant. Steroids made him swell like a beach ball. His skin blistered. His hair fell out.

Toward the end, his feet filled with so much fluid that he left wet footprints behind him.

"He had so much courage for what he went through," his brother says. "I couldn't have done it.

"It was unbelievable."

He never complained. Not to his brother. Not to his mother. Not to his grandparents, or mother's fiance, best friends, boss or boss' wife.

When he turned 16, Steve began working at Antonio's Pasta Grill in Feather Sound.

Even as a busboy, says owner Dean Koutroumanis, Steve chatted with the customers.

"He was like the mayor of Antonio's, pretty much, and that's my job," Koutroumanis says. "He pretty much took that over."

When he began work as a waiter, customers requested his tables. One night, after a middle-aged couple had finished their meal, Steve began to talk with them. Other customers left. Workers cleaned up and vacuumed the floor. It was time to lock up and leave, but he still held court.

Steve died Feb. 26, one of 7,200 Americans who will die of acute myeloid leukemia this year. He died at home, the way he wanted to. Michael and Patsy were with him.

"I can't imagine not having him in my life," his brother says. "He taught me so much. Especially in the last eight months, about courage, about dignity, about not taking anything for granted."

Two days later, Michael sits in the funeral home on a couch facing his brother's casket. Inside the casket are a heart-shaped bouquet of roses, a stuffed dog, a floppy-eared bunny and baseball cap. Patsy put them there. Flowers line the front of the room. Childhood pictures and bowling trophies line the back.

Steve's bone marrow transplant was Jan. 5. But soon after, his family got the news: It didn't take. Nothing else could save him. His mother's fiance, Dan Morrow, was at the hospital with Steve when a friend called a few days later. Could he bring anything?

"No, don't worry about anything for me," Steve said. "But bring my mom some fresh coffee. The coffee's terrible."

A few weeks later, Steve returned home. Dawn Koutroumanis, who is married to Steve's boss, drove him to see his doctor. She couldn't believe how swollen he looked. But still, he told jokes and talked about his favorite comedians the whole way.

"It took, like, 15 minutes (for him) to get up from my car, but not one word," she said. "He was laughing. He made light of everything."

Just weeks before his death, a family friend came by and asked Steve, who by then could barely walk, what he would do if he got better.

His mother liked what she heard. "If I could walk and get better, I would go over to Moffitt Cancer Center and volunteer my services," he said.

Thursday, Michael stood inside Espiritu Santo Catholic Church as he told 80 mourners why his brother was his hero.

"A hero is someone who has the inner strength to not let those words (acute myeloid leukemia) bring you down. . . . And still be the same laughing and loving person you have always been. . . . To me, this is a true hero."

There was a pause as Michael sobbed.

"You are an angel now."

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