Lee Owens dead at 34 battled rare affliction Tormented body finally surrenders

September 04, 1992|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

In the end, a heart attack claimed Lee Owens' life, an unremarkable way to die for a man who suffered from a disease no doctor could understand.

The 34-year-old Severna Park man had the appearance of a severe burn victim -- skin that peeled, sores that itched and lesions that covered 95 percent of his body. And doctors never determined why.

Tuesday evening, after three weeks of unbearable pain, the former Anne Arundel County public works employee and gospel guitarist died of heart failure at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"His body gave out," said Vonnie Owens, his wife of 13 years. "It couldn't take it anymore.

"I really loved him. He really loved me. I'm happy for the time I spent with him. I don't have any regrets. I gave him everything he wanted."

Always upbeat, always joking, Mr. Owens shunned publicity and was embarrassed by fund-raisers that friends arranged.

"He was a fighter," said Mrs. Owens, 31. "He didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him. He wanted people rejoicing. He didn't want anyone to feel sorry or sad."

The disease showed up five years ago, when a dentist observed sores on Mr. Owens' lips. They eventually spread to his entire body, causing disfigurement and skin deterioration. He spent long hours every day soaking in a bathtub.

He was diagnosed with hypertrophic lichen planus, a skin disorder believed to be caused by a hormonal change. Doctors say there is no cure.

The disease is "rare, but not incredibly rare," explained Dr. Sanford Gips, Mr. Owens' primary physician at Johns Hopkins for three years. But it usually attacks only a small section of the body, he added.

"It is usually a very mild, localized illness. It is usually not overwhelming," Dr. Gips said. "Lee clearly had a worst-case scenario."

It meant Mr. Owens and his wife had to give up their jobs. Playing in his gospel bands, the Spiritual Uplifters and Kenny Davis and the Melodyaires, became nearly impossible for Mr. Owens. He last performed with the Melodyaires Jan. 4 in front of 400 people attending a fund-raiser in his honor at the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Hall.

"He was feeling good," recalled Kenny Davis, who founded the group. "When he was playing, he wasn't itching. As long as he was playing, it wasn't bothering him."

His upbeat attitude touched everyone, his friends said yesterday, including Dr. Gips, who said he learned a a lot about faith from his patient.

"It was inspirational to treat him in one resect: his courage," the doctor said. "He was incredibly well adjusted considering the seriousness of his disfigurement. I think he lived a lot longer than some people would predict."

Services for Mr. Owens will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. James Church of Apostolic Faith in Glen Burnie.

Before the burial, Mrs. Owens will put on a tape of her husband playing the guitar. Then, gospel groups that participated in January's fund-raiser will play a tribute. "I think that will be the right thing to do," Mr. Davis said.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Owens is survived by a 5-year-old daughter, Charnita, his mother, Cinda Horn, and his father, Lee Owen Sr., both of Baltimore.

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