DUNEDIN — By all accounts, Dunedin firefighter Mike Lowry looked and felt horrible.
Throat cancer left him in constant pain and made swallowing difficult or at times impossible, requiring a feeding tube. He lost hair and his 6-foot-3 frame dwindled to 210 pounds as he underwent 35 radiation treatments and two day-long rounds of chemotherapy in just 40 days.
The treatments made Lowry so weak that he'd sometimes fall into a deep sleep while moving laundry from the washer to the dryer.
Yet, the 13-year veteran never complained and instead concentrated on getting back on his feet — and back on the job.
On May 3, 2011, just five months after his diagnosis, Lowry returned to work, where he drives a fire engine, acts as a paramedic and teaches new recruits, in addition to fighting fires.
His perseverance and upbeat attitude have earned him Dunedin's Firefighter of the Year award for 2011. He was recently recognized by the Dunedin City Commission.
"His determination to fight the cancer, get healthy and get back to work, I thought, was very commendable of him," said Kat Schloss, a firefighter-paramedic who led the bid to nominate Lowry.
"Whereas a lot of people may not care about work at the moment, he made it a priority," she continued. "For him to beat it and come back to work within the year, it was mind-blowing. … He inspired us."
Each year, three nominees — one per shift — are chosen from among their peers for the annual honor. A group of lieutenants chooses the winner.
Lowry, 48, of Seminole shrugs off the attention, saying, "People on the job don't seek it out. We do what most people call amazing stuff as a normal course of action."
But higher-ups say Lowry, whose experience stretches back 30 years, was a shoo-in.
Lowry joined the U.S. Army at age 18 and was working in military intelligence at a Hawaiian base when he was tapped to begin EMT training.
It turned out to be Lowry's dream job: "I rode with the Honolulu Fire Department and during my ride-alongs it was something I just loved doing."
In Hawaii, he also met his wife, Rene, an Air Force linguist.
The couple moved to Florida in 1992. Lowry, who had left the Army in 1989, began working again toward his EMT certification and joined Sunstar as a paramedic in 1996. He cut back to part-time in 1999 when he completed fire academy training and joined the Dunedin Fire Department.
In December 2010, the couple was on a cruise celebrating their 25th anniversary when Rene, now a hospice nurse, noticed a lump on Mike's neck.
Lowry quickly went downhill, suffering dizzy spells so severe that he had to leave work Jan. 3 and have a friend take him to the emergency room. What his doctor initially diagnosed as a blocked salivary gland turned out to be a cancerous throat tumor that was pressing on nerves and cutting off the blood supply to his brain.
Schloss cried, fearing that her mentor of 10 years was going to die. But Lowry refused.
Throughout his treatment, Lowry attended fire union meetings whenever his body would allow. He regularly had folks drive him by the fire station after medical appointments just to say hello. As he became stronger, the ever-upbeat Lowry used his regular walks with Schloss to inquire about their colleagues and talk about the day he'd return.
Lowry has resumed a full schedule of 68 work hours a week — 56 at Dunedin Fire Station 60 and 12 with Sunstar.
"We try to pick someone every year that goes above and beyond … and Mike particularly stood out," said Lt. Dino Daminato. "We were kind of astounded by how up he could be when we knew he was feeling horrible. … Everyone looked at that as a sign of strength."
But colleagues say Lowry's hard-won cancer fight isn't the only thing that makes him stand out.
Over the last 13 years, he has helped dozens of recruits get on-the-job training needed for their certification.
He's known for going out of his way to help patients he meets on emergency calls by personally seeking out their friends, family or neighbors, then following up on the patients' welfare later.
On top of that, Lowry and his wife switched off shifts for years to provide around-the-clock care for their only child, Thomas, who was diagnosed at 6 months old with cri-du-chat syndrome. The chromosomal abnormality has left the 21-year-old with the developmental function of a toddler. He's now in an assisted living facility.
Lowry calls the honor he received "humbling" and credits his wife, relatives, friends, oncologists and religious faith with helping him pull through. "If I wanted to be depressed during that time period, I couldn't have been. I just felt so supported — it was unbelievable," he said.
He also thanks his co-workers, who visited him, drove him to medical appointments and took extra shifts in his absence.
Since his cancer diagnosis, Lowry has reached out to others who are battling the disease. His health battle as well as his son's have taught him that perseverance is key.
"For anybody that's going through it," he said, "don't think it's all over."
Keyonna Summers can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4153. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.