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Elijah Dukes' family mourns death of his father, question prison medical care

TAMPA — After spending 14 years behind bars, the father of former Rays outfielder Elijah Dukes was released from prison Nov. 1.

Three weeks later, Elijah "David" Dukes Sr. died of cancer in a Tampa hospital. He was 43.

Today, as his family prepares for his wake, they struggle with their recent whiplash of emotions: excitement about a husband and father's homecoming, shock at his deteriorated health and anger that his disease appears to have gone undetected and untreated in prison.

"Every morning, I wake up crying," said his wife, Phyllis Dukes. "It's still just not real. It's not real."

She feels the prison system failed her husband, who served time for murder.

"The state had him," she said. "They should have taken better care of him."

Prison officials could not comment Thursday afternoon on Elijah Dukes Sr.'s medical condition. A spokeswoman did say his release was not prompted by his health.

"His sentence was over," said Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Jo Ellyn Rackleff.

As Phyllis Dukes spoke Thursday, her professional baseball player son sat on the porch of the family's east Tampa home, unwilling to talk about his father's death with a reporter.

Elijah Dukes Jr., who now plays for the Washington Nationals, was in the Dominican Republic for winter ball when he received news about his father's condition. He flew home to spend time with the man who used to take him fishing and attend his sporting events.

As the elder Dukes lay in a hospital bed at University Community Hospital, his 25-year-old son showed him the Nationals jersey, blanket and hat he had previously bought for him. Elijah Dukes Sr. kept up with his namesake's career through newspaper accounts, the family said, but never got to see him play in the big leagues.

"It's hard on Elijah," his mother said. "He hasn't got that chance to spend any time with his father."

The younger Dukes was 12 when a judge sentenced his father to 20 years in prison. Elijah Dukes Sr., then a 30-year-old truck driver, pleaded guilty to shooting a man who reportedly sold $100 worth of fake crack cocaine to Dukes' wife.

Dukes had no prior record. His wife said she dealt cocaine but never used it.

"He just only made one mistake in his life," she said.

The family remembers him as a hardworking and loving father to six children. They remember his ready smile and perfect teeth and the way his tongue hung out when he ran the bases in the Belmont Heights adult league.

"He was like a big kid," said his youngest daughter, Mary, 22.

When he returned to Tampa last month, he didn't look right, his wife and daughter said. He had lost a lot of weight and his abdomen was swollen.

The prison medical staff had diagnosed him with severe acid reflux and prescribed Zantac, they said. But doctors at University Community Hospital said he had a tumor in his stomach and cancer in his liver, according to Phyllis Dukes.

"They stated that there wasn't anything they could do for him," she said. "It was too far gone."

Records from the Hillsborough Medical Examiner's Office show that his medical history included metastasized colon cancer. It is typical for cancer that occurs in the liver to begin in another area of the body, such as the colon.

Cancer is generally more treatable when found early, said Dr. Jonathan Strosberg, a medical oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center who was not involved with Dukes' case.

Most people with primary liver cancer don't have signs and symptoms in the early stages. And most patients are diagnosed at a relatively late stage, he said.

On Thursday, the Dukes family grieved for lost opportunities. They had looked forward to Elijah Dukes Sr. getting to know his 10 grandchildren. They had hoped to host a festive barbecue in his honor, but he was in too much pain to eat.

Phyllis Dukes, 49, wore a blue sling on her right arm. She had fainted and injured herself when she learned of her husband's passing.

He died on Nov. 23, her birthday.

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

Elijah Dukes' family mourns death of his father, question prison medical care 12/03/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 9:46pm]

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