ST. PETERSBURG, FL -- Cigarette smoke hangs in the air in the room where Bryan
Lee Curtis lies dying of lung cancer.
His head, bald from
chemotherapy, lolls on a pillow. The bones of his cheeks and shoulders
protrude under taut skin. His eyes are open, but he can no longer respond
to his mother or his wife, Bobbie, who married him in a makeshift ceremony
in this room three weeks ago after
doctors said there was no hope.
In Bryan's emaciated hands,
Bobbie has propped a photograph taken just two months ago. It shows a
muscular and seemingly healthy Bryan holding his 2-year-old son, Bryan Jr.
In the picture, he is 33. He turned 34 on May 10.
A pack of cigarettes and a
lighter sit on a table near Bryan's bed in his mother's living room. Even
though tobacco caused the cancer now eating through his lungs and liver,
Bryan smoked until a week ago, when it became impossible.
Across the room, a
20-year-old nephew crushes out a cigarette in a large glass ashtray where
the butt joins a dozen others. Bobbie Curtis says she'll try to stop after
the funeral, but right now, it's just too difficult. Same for Bryan's
mother, Louise Curtis.
"I just can't do it now," she
says, although she hopes maybe she can after the funeral.
Bryan knew how hard it is to
quit. But when he learned he would die because of his habit, he thought
maybe he could persuade at least a few kids not to pick up that first
cigarette. Maybe if they could see his sunken cheeks, how hard it was
breathe, his shriveled body, it might scare them enough.
So a man whose life was
otherwise unremarkable set out in the last few weeks of his life with a
* * *
Bryan started when he was
just 13, building up to more than two packs a day. He talked about
quitting from time to time, but never seriously tried.
Plenty of time for that, he
figured. Older people got cancer. Not people in their 30s, not people who
worked in construction, as a roofer, as a mechanic.
He had no health insurance.
But he was more worried about his mother, 57, who had smoked since she was
"He would say, "Mom, don't
worry about me. Worry about yourself. I'm healthy,' " Louise Curtis
remembers. "You think this would happen later, when you're 60 or 70 years
old, not when you're his age."
He knew, only a few days
after he went to the hospital on April 2 with severe abdominal pain, how
wrong he had been. He had oat cell lung cancer that had spread to his
liver. He probably had not had it long. Also called small cell lung
cancer, it's an aggressive killer that usually claims the lives of its
victims within a few months.
While it seems unusual to the
Curtis family, Dr. Jeffrey Paonessa, Bryan's oncologist, said he is seeing
more lung cancer in young adults.
"We've seen lung cancer
earlier and earlier because people are starting to smoke earlier and
earlier," Paonessa said. Chemotherapy sometimes slows the process, but had
little effect in Bryan's case, he said.
Bryan also knew, a few days
after the diagnosis, that he wanted somehow to try to save at least one
kid from the same fate. He sat down and talked with Bryan Jr. and his
9-year-old daughter, Amber, who already had been caught once with a
cigarette. But he wanted to do more. Somehow, he had to get his story out.
When he still had some
strength to leave the house, kids would stare.
"They'd come up and look at
him because he looked so strange," Louise Curtis said. "He'd look at them
and say, "This is what happens to you when you smoke.'
"The kids would say, 'Oh,
man. I can't believe it,' " Louise Curtis said.