Editor’s note: This is one in a periodic series called Stepping Up, highlighting moments of compassion, duty and community in uncertain times. Have a story we should tell? Send it via email to email@example.com with the subject “Stepping Up.”
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Ryan Dwyer wanted to do something for all the nurses who had taken such good care of him and his stepdaughter while both battled cancer last year.
So in March, he began delivering meals to those hospital workers, from his car and with his own money.
“We had a goal to impact the people — and we were literally living in these hospitals — that had their hands on us every day or every other day, both of us, throughout our treatment,” Dwyer said. “It was those people I wanted to somehow impact.”
Then, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic hit home. When Dwyer was laid off from a job in the restaurant industry, he took his mission to the next level.
“Restaurants had crumbled, and people were trying to survive with business loans. That meant they had to have staff there, but there wasn’t work,” said Dwyer, who had worked the past six years for Charlie’s Produce, running its business development for restaurant startups. “So it set a light off in my head.”
He started raising money on GoFundMe to help struggling restaurants by placing profitable orders for 100 meals or more, which “would generate work for their staff and revenue for their restaurant,” he said. The first recipients were the three places that had taken care of him and his stepdaughter: Seattle Children’s, UW Medical Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
The effort became a nonprofit called Fine Dine Front Lines that has delivered more than 5,100 meals to 14 hospitals, from Gig Harbor to Spokane.
Then came some tough news. On May 20, Dwyer was told his leukemia had returned.
“’Relapsed’ was the word they used, and now I have full-blown AML [acute myeloid] leukemia again,” Dwyer said. “I need a bone marrow transplant and a whole immune system transplant, which I didn’t even know was a thing until all of this.”
But neither that news, nor undergoing chemotherapy again, has stopped Dwyer from his mission. He is still running the nonprofit, and still delivers food when he is medically allowed, getting help from volunteers in the Seattle rugby community when he can’t do it.
“I am in a spot where I can either lie down like I did last year, and lie here terrified, or I can create some aspect of motivation, sanity and peace by doing this,” Dwyer said. “And part of it is, I see that it works. Many of the people at these hospitals do not know that I am related to the [free] food, but I hear them talking about it. I sit there doing transfusions and I hear the gratitude.”
Dwyer, 40, doesn’t have to look far for motivation and inspiration. Violet Martinez, his 12-year-old stepdaughter whom he has raised since she was 2, provides plenty.
In January 2019, Violet was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. On May 4 of that year, they learned her cancer was going into remission, and the family celebrated. The next day, Dwyer experienced some shortness of breath and went to a walk-in clinic.
“The next thing I knew, I was at UW, fighting leukemia and starting chemo,” he said.
For a time, Violet was finishing chemotherapy treatments at Children’s while Dwyer was starting his at UW Medical Center.
“My wife was bouncing around two hospitals,” Dwyer said.
Violet’s cancer is still in complete remission. Dwyer began this year in remission, then got the bad news on May 20, Violet’s 12th birthday.
You won’t hear an ounce of self-pity from him.
“We are blessed,” he said. “I am talking to you about feeding people food, when I could be sitting on my butt in year two [of cancer] and them telling me I’ve got a ticking clock.”
Dwyer has been open about his cancer from the beginning, sharing his experiences on social media, and 17 cancer patients have reached out to him to talk and seek advice.
“Three have passed in the past seven months. I am still here, my daughter is still here, and we are doing something awesome that is working right now,” Dwyer said. “We don’t know what is going to happen long term, but I am just living in the moment, and I feel blessed because it could be a whole separate conversation.”
Dwyer is feeling good these days — “I feel like I could play nine or 18 holes of golf,” he said. He and Violet delivered meals Thursday to UW Medical Center, with some going “to people, in a couple of weeks, who are going to be giving me chemotherapy again.”
Dwyer said the hope is that he can undergo a bone marrow transplant sometime next month after another round of chemotherapy. That will mean time in the hospital away from Violet, but he will bring with him a letter she wrote.
It reads, in part: “I will always be here for you even if I can’t see you in the hospital. Cancer sucks but you will get through this. Stay strong and I will stay strong with you. If you ever need to cry, we can cry together. Stay strong for me. When I was in the hospital, I didn’t know if I would survive, but I couldn’t just sit there and feel bad for myself for the rest of my life. I had to stay positive like you guys told me, so you need to do the same.”
Said Dwyer: “She’s awesome and she’s very inspiring. She makes going through all of this be like, ‘Suck it up, Buttercup.’ I just watched her go through all of this.”
Now in round two, Dwyer is determined to stay positive — and busy.
“I am pretty impressed that, whenever he can, he’s helping with the deliveries, he’s making the phone calls and all that, even during some of his hospitalizations,” said Justin Speyer, a lead nurse practitioner at UW Medical Center, who went to high school with Dwyer at Seattle Prep.
Speyer said a lot of patients in Dwyer’s situation focus exclusively on getting themselves through the difficult treatment.
“He was telling me that one of the things that gets him through each day is working on this. It gives him something that he tells himself that he has to do,” Speyer said. “There is no option to just sleep all day. He says he has to make a phone call, or he has to return these emails, and it is pretty impressive that he’s making himself do that.”
Dwyer wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve got everyone telling me to slow down,” he said. “But I politely step back and say, ‘I will recognize my health whenever that needs be and I will follow everyone’s direction. But I slowed down last year; I’ve already done that.’ And this bone marrow procedure really needs to work, so I am going hard right now.”