ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — In a normal school setting, Tony Colton and Ashley Krueger probably wouldn’t cross paths.
He’s 13. She’s 18. He’s short and outgoing. She’s about 6 feet tall and serious. He’s in middle school, she’s thinking about college.
But where they met — All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg — nothing is normal. Here, in the halls adorned with whimsical paintings and cheery colors and masked nurses, they both faced a deadly cancer diagnosis.
“We make each other laugh, which is important,” said Ashley. “Because sometimes that’s just what you need.”
They became best friends, texting and messaging on Facebook several times a day when they weren’t confined to their hospital beds. Their parents took photos of them at every opportunity: Tony with hair and Ashley without; both bald; both with hair; both sick and smiling.
She had a bone cancer occurring mostly in children and teens, and lost part of her shoulder. Tony had a rare form of kidney cancer and lost one of his kidneys. For a brief time in 2012, both were clear of cancer, and their families felt some relief.
Then, Ashley was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma in September. She needed a bone marrow transplant and would be in isolation for months.
Tony knew how that would affect Ashley’s family financially.
“Car payments, their house payments, little tweaks and stuff that they had to fix around the house before Ashley comes back from her bone marrow transplant,” Tony said.
Starting with a garage sale and car wash, he gathered donations. Then he opened an account with http://www.giveforward.com , a site dedicated to raising money for people with medical bills. Within months, Tony raised about $25,000 for Ashley.
Ashley’s mom, Pat Myers, who had quit her job as a website programmer so she could care for her daughter, was overwhelmed.
Myers recalled thinking: “I hope we never have to repay the favor.”
But two weeks after Ashley’s diagnosis, Tony discovered his cancer returned. He would need costly treatment in Bethesda, Md., at the National Institutes of Health.
Ashley, from her hospital bed, told her mother that she wanted to start an online fundraiser for her friend.
“Tony did this for me, I have to do this for him,” said Ashley, who is in isolation following a bone marrow transplant.
So far, she’s raised $3,700.
The most expensive pediatric cancers to treat can cost upward of $50,000 per hospital stay, according to the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, which is part of the government Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. How much is covered by insurance can vary.
And even families with insurance to cover their children’s cancer treatments find themselves with big bills to cover things like gas and airfare to travel to medical centers and hotel stays.
Myers said that in Ashley’s first year of cancer, their middle-class family spent more than $40,000. Insurance paid for most of the treatment, but not the mortgage payment or the $1,000 monthly bills for gas to and from the hospital.
“You are a working family who is insured,” said Myers, who has since started a nonprofit group to help parents of young cancer patients navigate the complex and confusing world of insurance and financial aid. “You’re reduced to begging.”
Connie Colton, Tony’s mom, has similar frustrations. She said her family’s church and online fundraisers like Ashley’s have been instrumental in helping with paying for what insurance can’t. Tony faces several trips to Maryland for immunotherapy treatments; the treatments are covered, but things like airfare and a hotel for Tony’s mom are not. She is a retired government employee who now works part-time.
While there are other campaigns on Give Forward that have raised more money, St. Pierre said Tony and Ashley’s friendship is unique.
“It shows that even if you’re a kid, you can make a huge difference for someone,” said Nate St. Pierre, the spokesman for Chicago-based Give Forward. “It’s so cool to see this, kids helping kids.”
Ashley’s Give Forward Page: https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/dhg1/ashleysjourney
Tony’s Give Forward Page: https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/z4x1/tonystriumph
Follow Tamara Lush on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tamaralush