Throughout the night, all Tony Devodier could say was “Can you believe it?”
He said it as he stepped out of the white limo on Higuera Street, and was greeted by photographers. He said it as he was led through SLO Brew, to a parade of hugs and back-slapping from patrons. He said it again right before he took the stage, guitar in hand.
Devodier, 62, has just cause to use that phrase — the story of how he got to the SLO Brew stage Monday night is close to unbelievable.
After being diagnosed with terminal lung, kidney and brain cancer two years ago, Devodier was jobless, homeless and going in and out of local emergency rooms for medical attention. Eventually, he was taken in by the recuperative care program at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter in San Luis Obispo, where he received round-the-clock medical care.
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I have a responsibility to leave something of value with you, with everybody. That’s what it is all about. Tonight for me, that’s going to be the whole thing.
Now, Devodier is in remission, and on Monday night, he was able to fulfill one of his lifelong dreams: playing guitar in concert.
“A few months ago, maybe in November, I was saying this thing that I highly recommend a terminal disease as a way to fully enjoy living,” Devodier said as he waited to take the stage.
“People ask if I’m kidding, and no, I mean it. It added a whole dimension to my life. I have to be responsible for the fact that I might — that this might be our last interaction. So I have a responsibility to leave something of value with you, with everybody. That’s what it is all about. Tonight for me, that’s going to be the whole thing.”
A medical miracle
Devodier wasn’t the only one to ask “Can you believe it?” Monday night.
“It’s a miraculous story, where in reality he shouldn’t be here,” said Devodier’s oncologist, Thomas Spillane, as he sat beside the thin man eating dinner before the show. “He’s defied all odds from a medical standpoint. It’s a very inspirational story for other patients and other people.”
According to Spillane, Devodier’s medical drama began in 2015, when Devodier went to the hospital for a sharp pain in his chest, to find that he had dissected his aorta.
The fact that he survived that alone is a miracle, Spillane said.
“Ninety-five percent of people die immediately when that happens,” he said. “Amazingly, he survives.”
But then the drama continued when Devodier was taken to Stanford Medical Hospital for surgery on his aorta, where he was diagnosed not only with lung cancer, but also kidney cancer.
Because of the medical problems, Devodier lost his restaurant job in San Luis Obispo and ended up living on the street.
“After he was discharged from the hospital, he actually went to a motel,” said Grace McIntosh, director of Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County, which provides resources to the county’s homeless. “Then when his money ran out, he was on the street. And he ended up right back in the hospital in the ER. And then they called us, and we were able to take him.”
I’m looking at him thinking, ‘I can’t explain why he is still alive.’
Thomas Spillane, oncologist
Devodier was taken to the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, where CAPSLO has a pilot program for recuperative care of homeless individuals. The program offers six beds to homeless individuals who have been discharged from the hospital and need a safe place to recover 24-7, when other shelters close during the day.
It also helps to organize that person’s medical care, bringing together teams of special local physicians.
“He was able to recuperate,” McIntosh said. “He was able to get the procedures, the treatment that has really brought him to this point. It’s been an amazing process. ... Anthony is just one of so many people, I’m not kidding, whose lives have literally been saved, and literally been changed because of this.”
After a tumor was found in Devodier’s brain as well, Spillane prescribed immunotherapy drugs to help combat the cancer riddling Devodier’s body.
They seem to have worked: Devodier’s cancer has been in remission for several months now, Spillane said.
“After a couple of months, he’s like, ‘Doc, I’m feeling really good,’ ” Spillane said. “I’m looking at him thinking, ‘I can’t explain why he is still alive.’ ”
A night to remember
Beside prescribing the drugs that might have saved his life, Spillane is also one of the main architects of Devodier’s concert Monday night.
To hear Devodier describe it, Spillane had been bugging him for months to do something special with a local volunteer group called the Dream Makers, which grants wishes to adults with terminal illnesses in SLO County, similar to the Make-A-Wish-Foundation.
“Believe it or not, it came out of me joking something like, ‘I want to jam with The Rolling Stones, or something like that,’ ” Devodier laughed.
Devodier had played guitar since he was a teen, but as his health and financial situation worsened, was unable to continue.
The Rolling Stones were a little out of their reach, but eventually they decided Devodier would play a live concert with Spillane’s own band, Where’s Sweeny?
Monday night, he returned to the guitar, in a live gig in front of hundreds of smiling fans.
During the show, which consisted mostly of classic rock anthems from the likes of Tom Jones, Van Morrison, Lynard Skynard and of course, The Rolling Stones, Devodier was gifted a new acoustic guitar and a video message from The Steve Miller Band wishing him a happy recovery.
As the night progressed, Devodier sat on a bar stool center stage and carefully picked out the notes for each song with laser focus — never tapping his foot, rarely moving his eyes away from the sheet music in front of him.
But once each song ended, he would look up with a grin and a thumbs up. And several times, he would mouth the same words to the audience:
“Can you believe it?”