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Detroit-area man is cancer patients' coffee angel

At 10 a.m. every Thursday — the same day he usually took his dad for chemotherapy treatment — Dan Dewey is at the cancer unit of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland hospital in Pontiac, taking coffee orders.
/ Source: The Associated Press

At 10 a.m. every Thursday — the same day he usually took his dad for chemotherapy treatment — Dan Dewey is at the cancer unit of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland hospital in Pontiac, taking coffee orders.

By about 10:30 a.m., he's at the Starbucks down the street.

Everyone knows to expect him: the staff and patients at the hospital, as well as the folks at Starbucks, where workers have come to fill Dewey's orders so efficiently, they rarely get complaints from customers anymore.

But every now and then, someone wonders why that guy in white shorts and a gray sweatshirt is holding up the line buying so many cups of lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, strawberry smoothies, and, oh yeah, somebody wanted hot chocolate.

But the regulars know.

And when the complainers find out, well, they fall silent. And some of them put money down to help cover the costs.

Dewey buys the coffee for cancer patients every Thursday because his dad, Edgar Dewey, told him to.

Dan Dewey started his weekly runs when his dad was a patient in the center in 2007. And he continues even though his dad died at age 87 in 2008.

His dad had cancer, but the cancer didn't kill him. He conquered cancer twice. Dewey swears he died of a broken heart, just a few months after the passing of his wife of 62 years, Mary Jane Dandison Dewey. He simply lost the will to fight a third bout with cancer after his high school sweetheart died.

But the sweet essence of his heart lives on in Dan's Coffee Run.

Dan Dewey, 65, a retired educational broadcasting operator for Birmingham Public Schools, used to pay for the drinks — averaging about $50 a trip — out of his own pocket before a Starbucks staffer stepped in.

One of the baristas, Valerie Edgington, 46, of Waterford, decided last year to create a special debit-like card through which people can donate money for coffee runs. People can put money on the card in person at the Starbucks on Woodward at Square Lake Road in Bloomfield Hills or via or a Facebook page she set up. She also made T-shirts that sell for $20 and stickers ($5) to help spread the word and encourage contributions.

"He never asked for anything special," Edgington said. "He just came in every Thursday ordering all these different drinks. Finally, I asked him what he was doing, and I wanted to help."

Now there's usually enough money on the card to cover the costs, but when there isn't, Dewey goes back into his own pockets.

He has to.

See, when his dad was dying, he told him to keep getting drinks for the chemo patients. The coffee warmed his body and his soul.

He wanted that for others.

So does his son.

The doctors and nurses say there may be something therapeutic about Dewey's visits.

"It's definitely a mood-lifter, and a positive attitude is beneficial for any patient going through cancer treatment," said Kathy Courtney, oncology nurse and unit manager.

Oncologist Rajan Krishnan, the doctor who treated Dewey's dad, said the visits remind him of times gone by in his native India, when people stopped by simply to share a cup of tea or coffee. Doing so showed people they mattered.

Patients such as Mechelle Burdette, 45, of Eastpointe appreciate that.

Burdette was at the center on a recent Thursday with her aunt, Sharon Ralston, 68, who was in from Palm Coast, Fla., helping to care for her. She has Stage 4 cancer — five brain tumors and a spot on her lung. She was diagnosed in July.

Burdette had ordered a hazelnut cappuccino; her aunt ordered a plain latte.

"It's my favorite drink," Burdette said. "I love it."

"It's so special it brings tears to your eyes," Burdette said of the coffee visits. "This is so sweet. It really picks you up. It gives you to the strength to make it through, just knowing the kind of people who are out there. It warms your heart."

Her aunt, a cancer survivor, said she offered to tip or pay Dewey, but he refused. "He said, 'Oh no. No money touches my hands.' I don't think he's a man. I think he's an angel."

Sharon Donley, 68, of Port Huron was at the center getting treatment for a recurrence of ovarian cancer. She remembers Dewey from when she was treated in the past and was pleased to see he's still making his weekly rounds at the unit. She ordered a plain decaf latte.

"He just brings a smile to your face," Donley said. "It's such a wonderful thing to do for the patients. He brings you coffee, and he makes you laugh. It's such a wonderful thing to know that there's someone who doesn't even know you who cares. It makes a difference because when you're here, you're always a little nervous. And then you have this pleasant familiar experience."

Dewey said bringing coffee isn't just about honoring his dad's wishes. It makes him feel good, too.

"If anyone doubts why anybody would do something like this, all you have to do is see these people smile," he said.

Besides, what else would he do with his time and money?

"I don't smoke or drink or gamble," said Dewey, who is single and has no children. "All I do is run marathons and this." He ran his 27th marathon last month when he did the Detroit Free Press/Talmer Bank Marathon.

Earlier this year, he also added making periodic trips to Beaumont Hospital's Rose Cancer Center in Royal Oak because a patient there heard of his visits to St. Joseph and asked him to visit there, too.

Why Starbucks?

"Well, the whole point of Starbucks is that it is special. I could get coffee any place, even out of the machines. But when you're stuck in a chair getting chemo, it's not fun. I want to add a little — what's the word? — panache. It's not just, 'Here's the coffee.' It's a little bit extra. The whole idea is to make them feel special. "


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