Two different worlds – one enduring friendship

Presidential award for end of life care


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“Dino, you’re my best friend. I love you. It’s time for me to die now.” Five days later, Mark Danforth succumbed to his six-month fight with cancer.

It was an unexpected and unplanned journey that Milwaukee VA employee Dean “Dino” Mantzavrakos took with an unlikely friend who seemed to be a polar opposite. Danforth was a quiet, 6-foot-9, truck-driving, heavy metal rocker with long shaggy hair — “like a blond Jesus,” Dino said.

Dino, a medical records administration specialist, is a smaller, balding man who loves the spotlight. And for more than 400 hours between June and November 2015, Mantzavrakos visited with his friend, did his laundry, cleaned his house, paid his bills and watched him die.

Mantzavrako was honored recently at the Milwaukee VA with the President’s Volunteer Service Award for providing end-of-life care for his friend when no one else would. The President’s Volunteer Service Award is given to Americans nationwide on behalf of the White House, to recognize and encourage those who live a life of service and help change the world.

But this was one spotlight the normally gregarious Mantzavrakos would prefer shine elsewhere. “The thing you really have to get is this was a very independent man who took care of everything. He was strong mentally and physically and didn’t have to rely on anyone for anything.

“When I was told I was considered for this award, I said, ‘Thank you, but no.’ This was very personal and I don’t consider it volunteer work. It was just something I had to do on my own time.’”

Dino and his husband, Gregory, first met Danforth in June 2012 while moving boxes into their new home. He came out into our driveway and introduced himself and within minutes of knowing him, he said, ‘If anyone screws with you guys, I’ll blow their head off.’ Then he drew a smiley face in the dust in our garage.

Wanted us to know we were OK

“That was just the way he was. He wanted us to know we were accepted by him and we were OK. He was a truck driver in a macho industry, but he just wanted to let us know in a socially awkward way that we were OK.”

The brief exchange became a neighborly friendship. “Here’s the thing,” said Dino. “Every time you meet a new person, you come out. You don’t come out just the first time. It’s every time you meet a new person, and whether you’re talking about your spouse or past relationships. Whenever you have to add a gender, you have to come out as a gay. You might get acceptance or you might not. You never know what you’re going to get.

“And here was this macho, straight guy, the heavy metal, rocker dude who loves guns and always dressed in black. He had a big, black truck that could swallow both our cars whole. But we all got along. We’d say ‘Hello’ when we were mowing our grass, or have barbecues.”

Danforth lived with and took care of his elderly aunt and uncle. But when they passed, the house was sold and money shared with the cousins. He used the same realtor as Dino and moved to a ranch home a couple miles away. They kept in touch here and there until Dino got an ominous text from his realtor friend, Jo Ann: “Our buddy Mark is not doing well, he’s got Stage 4 cancer,” she wrote.

Mark didn’t want chemo. He had cancer twice before, and knew this was it.

“And then it just became an everyday thing after work. We both really love cool cars, and even though I’m not a huge sports fan, I’d watch games with him. He loved the Brewers and really liked the Bulls. He liked the Raiders, Packers and the Bears. We’d talk about women and sports and relationships,” Dino recalled.

Talked about what life means

“A lot of times we talked about just what life means. He wanted to know if it meant anything. And I would respond, ‘Does the time here mean something to you? Because it means something to me.’”

Dino said there were times the daily visits were exhausting, but he knew it was important to his friend. “Here’s something caregivers don’t talk about,” he said. “There were days I was just tired, but my fear was there would be nobody to help him. I’d shop, clean and do everything.”

Slowly, Mark began to slip away. “The nurse said he would only perk up when he heard my name. He was pretty much incoherent by then.”

Finally, Mark opened his eyes and grabbed Dino’s hand. “Dino, you’re my best friend. I love you. It’s time for me to die now,” he said. “I know,” Dino replied. “You just let go, my friend. You are home now. It’s OK.”

Mark slipped into a coma and lived five more days.

Did not want the recognition

Will Johnson, the Equal Employment Opportunity program manager who oversees the President’s Volunteer Service Award each year, said because Dino didn’t want to be recognized is why he deserved it. “We had to convince Dino to talk about this. It was a very personal journey for him. Anyone who knows Dino knows he’s a nice guy, but the compassion he gave went so far beyond what people ordinarily do. I told him his story would empower others to step in.”

And that is why Dino ultimately was OK with the honor. “I never shy away from the spotlight. I am the center of attention and want all eyes on me. It’s the theater in me. But this thing I did was not about me. So, in a way, this was so uncomfortable getting the credit.

“But what I learned, and what I tell others, is this shows how important it is to have someone advocating for you who can help make decisions so you aren’t at the mercy of an institution.”

“I’m coming to accept that maybe if someone in their life needs help, even if it’s not end-of-life, don’t be afraid to offer that help. You might be the only kind person someone has.”

Author

Gary Kunich

joined the U.S. Air Force in 1986 and served for 20 years in public affairs. He is now the public affairs officer for the Milwaukee, Wisconsin VA Medical Center.

Comments

  1. Samuel S, Yoshioka    

    Compassion, a selfless road of care-giving!

  2. Gerald Nichols    

    What a great story of compassion and friendship.

  3. Mr James Laubler    

    A man who loves my brother is my brother. Blessings on you. It is important that your example be recognized. It’s a chance for others to learn how you did it. Sometimes a heart needs to be taught.

  4. john weston    

    Not sure who the tears rolling down my face are for…

  5. Sharon A. Kluender    

    Dino, this story warmed my heart and made me cry. Continue to be you.

  6. Vetta Stanley    

    Beautiful story of love and friendship

  7. Bob Gravino    

    Wow! A true story of caring and love of one human for another. Thank you, Dino, for what you did for Mark.

  8. Josephine M. Reifert    

    Marvelous – yes, he deserved his reward for his work. Maybe we can understand why.

  9. Dale Beshansky    

    Certainly puts things in perspective.The thread that holds mankind together is only getting weaker. We are here for each other or we are simply not here at all.

  10. LaTonya Blount    

    An absolutely wonderful story about a friendship and service to another. It reminds me that there is still good in most people.

  11. KELLY WOODRING    

    I AM A 71 Y/O PARTNERED MAN, JUST TO LAY THE GROUND RULES, HOW I PARTOOK OF THIS HUMONGOUS ORDEAL THAT DINO TOOK! I GOT BLURRY THINGS SO MUCH, READING ABOUT DINO AND HIS FRIEND MARK DANFORTH….LOTSA BLURRY THINGS SO MUCH, I HAD TO STOP READING BECAUSE BLURRY THINGIES GOT IN MY EYES…..

    GAWD, WHAT A HERO DINO IS AND I AM SURE HE WILL CONTINUE TO BE A HERO, A MAN AMONG MEN, A GIANT OF A MAN AMONG MEN ! !

    I HAVE A LEGALLY BLIND PARTNER (AGENT ORANGE FROM HIS JUNGLE DAYS) WHO ALSO HAS DIABETES AND KIDNEY ISSUES (AGAIN AGENT ORANGE DID ITS JOB!), A MAN, WHOM I “TRY TO TAKE CARE OF” THE THINGS HE CANNOT DUE TO HIS LOSS OF VISION. FOR SUCH, AND, ONLY FOR SUCH, DO I TELL WHAT I DO… AGAIN, LIKE DINO…. HE DID WHAT WAS NECESSARY TO HELP HIS FRIEND. I DO OUT OF LOVE FOR MY PARTNER AND WOULD STILL DO IT IF HE WERE MERELY A FRIEND, LIKE DINO DID. I SEEK NO ACCOLADES EITHER…JUST HAD TO GIVE MY MIND SOME CLARITY(??) ! !

    DINO, I ADMIRE YOU IMMENSELY ! !

    VA !….YOU LISTENING…GIVE DINO A RAISE…HE HAS EARNED IT MANYFOLD…..

    KELLY WOODRING, HM2, USN, 65-69 (I WAS SPARED THE HORRORS OF VIETNAM, SOME 50+ YEARS GONE BY)

    PS. WE BOTH “VISIT” OUR DENVER, CO VAMC MULTIPLE TIMES EACH MONTH…IT TEARS ME A PART TO SEE THE YOUNG “KIDS”9THEY ARE MEN AND WOMEN) WHO SERVED THEIR COUNTRY ….. THEY COME HOME BROKEN…BOTH PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY ! !

  12. Cassandra Pierce    

    ~~My heart is smiling & tears are falling after reading this. Being a Native American woman, this story just goes to show what my ancestors have taught. “We are all related”. We all bleed red blood, we are all humans. Dino, what a man you are!! Blessings to you.

  13. Beulah M Polley    

    A beautiful story….with friends like this, one does not have to worry or fret about what is coming.

  14. Roland Dell    

    Great article, I could really relate to it, thank you!

  15. Jeffrey Saltzman    

    HOOAH. Wish I had that type of friend

  16. Moonjean Love    

    “And the king shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, in as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

  17. Richard Foraker    

    That’s great that he stood by him threw this Important time of his life. It’s not nice to die by yourself .

  18. Lynn Cuthrell    

    You inspired me today. Thanks for reminding us to not be afraid to reach out to others.

  19. Helen Diaz    

    A beautiful lesson for all. Others will be inspired to “Play it forward”. One life impacts so many. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Matt Tarvin    

    Is the reason for this article the suffering and death of the veteran, the care and compassion of the VA personnel or the fact that the attendant is gay and has a husband?

  21. Dorcas Brunson    

    What happened to Gregory…he wasn’t mentioned…

  22. Erika Lord Hodges    

    Beautifully thoughtful article. Great writing Gary Kunich. Dino, thanks for explaining “Coming Out” in this way… those that don’t have to just don’t know how it feels, “You never know what you are going to get.” Friendship and family comes in all kinds of packages, looking past the outward (longhaired, rocker, trucker) you and Gregory just got to know Mark for who he was, a decent guy. And bless his soul, he did the exact same thing. Thanks Dino, for being a great friend and a generous example of why we keep coming out, to show those that think they “Don’t know anyone like that.”

  23. Tim Swift    

    Dino, our society needs more people like you.
    Thank you so much for being such an amazing human being.
    I’m so happy you received the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
    This heartwarming story helped restoring my faith in humanity.

  24. David J Weiner    

    First to Gary Kunich, the author of this marvelous story on compassion and human kindness…..thank you for sharing this because in today’s world we need more love, and compassion for others regardless of a person’s belief. Being my “brother’s keeper” is something that everyone should understand and practice….If this world was able to do this, perhaps there might not be all this hatred and greed that has grown out of control. Awards are only important to illustrate the deeds of people but the rewards of helping others should never be expected because rewards come back to all “brother’s keepers in special ways”.
    Thank you Dino….the world needs more Dinos…..I consider Dino an inspiration and a friend because I too have learned about giving back. I hope i am fortunate to have a Dino in my life..

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