Army of firefighters, artist support local man on cancer journey
Dread and anxiety grew with every passing mile.
Steve Dillman and his wife, Terrie “Frosty” Dillman, drove carefully toward Franciscan Health Cancer Center on a cold February morning. Steve Dillman was scheduled to start his first infusion chemotherapy treatment, an attempt to stem the advance Stage IV prostate cancer in his body.
Though he had been taking oral chemotherapy from home for cancer since 2018, this was a significant escalation in treatment, and he was scared.
As the Dillmans pulled into the hospital parking lot, they parked, got out and slowly made their way to the front door. What they found was almost unbelievable.
“There were something like 19 fire trucks sitting around the cancer ward. I wondered what was going on, maybe they were inside inspecting,” Steve Dillman said. “All at once, I heard people applauding, and there were all these firemen.
“I cried like a baby. It got me so much.”
More than 150 area firefighters and their families had come out to support Steve Dillman, offering applause, handshakes and hugs on his way into the hospital.
That touching moment of support and kindness has been captured forever in a stunning painting, prominently displayed in the Dillman home. The family worked with a Georgia-based artist, Tina Stoffel, to commission the painting, which is inspired by a photograph of the 76-year-old southside Indianapolis resident and more than 50 firefighters posed outside Franciscan Health Indianapolis.
Any time he sits out in his home’s sunroom — his favorite place to be — Steve Dillman looks up and remembers the force that is supporting him through his ordeal.
“Even though we’re not in the same department, we’re all firefighters. It is a brotherhood. A really strong brotherhood,” Steve Dillman said.
Down to his bones, Steve Dillman is a firefighter.
He retired from the Indianapolis Fire Department in 2005 after a 38-year career. Finding that he missed the camaraderie and routine of the fire house, he came out of retirement to work at the Greenwood Fire Department, a stint that lasted five years.
After a second retirement, he volunteered with the White River Township Fire Protection District, which oversees financial decisions and growth of the township’s fire services. He serves on the Firefighters Credit Union supervisory board, and takes people through the Indianapolis Fire Museum once a month.
He has a small office in his southside Indianapolis home dedicated to his career and its history. Old photographs, awards and commendations are framed on the walls. His old Indianapolis Fire Department coat and helmet hang on hooks.
For Father’s Day this year, a young White River Township firefighter who Dillman has mentored gifted him an old red fire hydrant that he turned into a table. The table is set against the wall of his “fire room.” For Christmas, the same firefighter and a few others found an antique fire call box, which also has a coveted spot in the room.
Gifts such as these are examples of the impression firefighters have on each other’s lives, Steve Dillman said.
“It’s a family,” he said.
He also was instrumental in bringing attention to firefighters struggling with cancer. He spoke at fire stations throughout central Indiana as a trainer for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, educating firefighters about their unique cancer risks.
His own story is enough to illustrate how cancer can change their lives and convince them to take precautions to protect their health.
Steve Dillman was first diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2002, when doctors were able to surgically remove the cancerous cells. But in 2007, blood tests revealed that the levels of a protein produced in the prostate gland were rising. That likely meant the cancer had returned.
At the same time, doctors discovered a growth in his throat. A biopsy showed that it was squamous cell carcinoma. Doctors recommended 37 rounds of radiation.
The cancer was incurable, but doctors were able to treat it with medication to keep it from spreading. In 2018, Steve Dillman’s medical team prescribed a daily oral chemotherapy he could take at home, which would stunt the growth of the disease. For more than two years, the chemotherapy pills worked.
Then in late January, the Dillman family learned that was no longer the case.
“It was no longer effective. So infusion chemotherapy was recommended,” Frosty Dillman said. “He was diagnosed with advanced, metastasized prostate cancer, which we’d known all along it was going to be. But it seems that all the sudden, it took off.”
Throughout his cancer ordeal, Steve Dillman had become close with a group of firefighters united by the disease. It was this group that helped spearhead the showing of support at Franciscan Health Indianapolis at that first chemotherapy treatment on Feb. 28.
Word spread through the Indianapolis Fire Department, then the departments at Greenwood and White River Township. Organizers thought there might be about 20 people to see Steve Dillman into the hospital.
Instead, a small army met the family.
“They kept coming and coming, all these firefighters — retired, active, EMT,” Frosty Dillman said. “Some were in uniform, some were in street clothes. I’ve never seen so many grown men crying in my life.”
Firefighters filled the cancer center lobby and hallway, and spilled out the doors. The hugging and handshakes went on so long, Frosty Dillman had to gently remind them they had an appointment to go to.
When they returned from the hospital, the White River Township Fire Department had lined trucks up along their road to welcome them back.
The care the fire departments have shown the Dillmans continued even after that morning. Firefighters have brought the family groceries so they don’t have to go to the store during the coronavirus crisis. They regularly mow their lawn and do landscaping work for them. A group came in March to sing happy birthday to Steve Dillman from outside.
Often, before the Dillmans can ask, firefighters are offering help in one way or another.
“The guys will come over and we’ll position ourselves out on the deck away from each other. It makes the day go by a lot better when they show up,” Steve Dillman said.
Frosty Dillman wanted to do something to commemorate and remember the all the love and support. Also, because of the pandemic, she could not accompany him into the hospital during treatments; she had to wait in the car. So she wanted something he could take with him for support.
Her mind went to Stoffel, a friend of a family member. She had painted a portrait of Frosty Dillman as a young woman, which turned into a gift for Steve Dillman years ago. The family asked if she would paint a picture based on a photograph taken with the firefighters outside the hospital.
“We had talked about (how) we prayed for 1,000 angels to watch over him,” Frosty Dillman said. “And we got 1,000 angels that day.”
Stoffel worked on the painting for nearly a month, taking great care on the details of the people gathered with the Dillmans. Spending so much time with the image and the emotion that was present that day imprinted itself on Stoffel.
“I felt so much compassion of the firefighters standing there with him. You could feel that energy,” she said.
Frosty Dillman’s plan was to give the painting to her husband after his final treatment. The presentation came with a surprise — Stoffel traveled from Georgia to present it in person.
“I’m so glad I was there. Not only was it the most challenging painting I’ve ever done to date, but also the most meaningful,” Stoffel said.
Steve Dillman has finished his sixth and final infusion chemotherapy treatment. His doctors will now assess if the cancer is progressing and if he needs further rounds of treatment. He’s prepared if that’s what he has to do. He knows his brotherhood has his back.
“We’ve had so much support from all of the firemen down here,” he said. “It’s been simply amazing.”
The complete story can be found at: http://www.dailyjournal.net/2020/07/18/army_of_firefighters_artist_support_local_man_on_cancer_journey/