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Mom's heart maintains son's memory with fund

December 16, 2011

Special to The Standard

NORTH KINGSTOWN – John Montanaro III was a student at Providence College, majoring in secondary education and dreaming of becoming a math teacher when he died this past April.
He was 19 and had been battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) non-stop for six years. “From June 2005 to April 2011, there was never a time he wasn’t in treatment,” says his mother, Debbie.
In his brief lifetime, John grabbed onto every moment, living to the fullest and touching the lives of virtually everyone he met. A devoted animal-lover, his legacy continues to grow, affecting the future of cancer-stricken animals.
As a senior at North Kingstown High School, his mother recalls, “He did his special project on the relevance of dogs – those who visit in the hospital, service dogs [to the disabled], search and rescue dogs.”
When he learned that more than 50 percent of animals with cancer are euthanized, John put on a one-man fundraiser at school, selling candy for a week and raising $1,800 for the Ocean State Veterinary Hospital on South County Trail in East Greenwich.
Calling it the John Montanaro Fund for oncology patients, hospital spokesmen have told Debbie that, so far, “they’ve saved over 24 animals with [money from] his
fund. I’m trying to keep that going, benefiting animals in my son’s memory.”
From the start of his diagnosis and frequent hospitalizations, John was a trooper.
“He never cried for himself,” Debbie states. “He got emotional for the other little kids [at Hasbro Children’s Hospital]. He would ask me to stop at Toys R Us to get things for the kids he met. At Dunkin’ Donuts, he would ask me to pay for small kids he saw.”
John did well in treatment, then he’d relapse. He developed a virus in the intestinal tract that led to bleeding ulcers.
He was sustained by his passion for dogs and a boundless zest for life.
Although chemotherapy had compromised his immune system, John was allowed to see pet therapy dogs during his hospitalizations. “It would have been so painful to have a dog go by in the hospital and not stop,” says Debbie. “He loved animals; he gravitated toward them.”
That was especially true with his beloved companion Yogi, an English Labrador. Incredibly, the dog developed cancer, too – John found a telltale lump – and both dog and master were on the same chemo at the same time. They even lost their hair together.
Yogi, who lived to eight years old, was treated at Ocean State Veterinary Hospital, a place that won John’s loyalty and devotion.
John’s mother wishes everyone could have known her son.
“If you were in his company for five minutes, you’d say, ‘I love this kid.’ He just wanted to be your friend. He risked a lot, opened himself to rejection. He totally embraced and consumed life. He called friends to go to football and softball games, went to his prom. He [attended events] but didn’t have day-to-day friendships.
“He would go to school and then go to the hospital. He would have treatment at the hospital and put on his soccer uniform in the car so he could get out on the field. I feel blessed that he was able to finish high school.”
It seems John came by his spirit and strength of character naturally: He was the second of Debbie and John’s children to develop cancer. Their daughter, Lenore, now 21 and a Trinity College student, was diagnosed with sarcoma at age five and, at 11, underwent an above-the-knee amputation at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital.
Lenore was stoic and determined, insisting that amputation was the best solution. Her mother was a rock, steadied by her faith. The Montanaros’ third child, 16-year-old Jason is healthy.
On his last birthday, his mom says, John called his two best friends and said “I want to spend the day with you.” They came to the house and played cards. “It was perfect.”
He suffered his first seizure in May 2010.
“Afterward, he realized a little [that he wouldn’t recover.] He was so fragile. He had convulsions and I slept on the floor in his room.” He once told her that, during school lunch, a kid had asked if he ever felt like quitting, committing suicide.
“Never,” John told him. “Every breath I take is a gift.”
In the spring of this year, he had treatment on a Friday and came home in the afternoon. “On Sunday he was hard to wake up and couldn’t talk,” Debbie recalls.
John’s spinal fluid tested positive for leukemia cells and there was involvement in the brain as well.
“The last month, there was no more treatment. We had him home. I had to prepare him for what would happen. He only knew his family; he had no memories.”
Debbie injected John with pain-killing morphine and told him, “You can’t get cured on Earth; it has to be in heaven.”
Then she said he should brace himself when he got there. “When Yogi sees you, he’s going to jump and love you up. There’s lots of dogs and baseball in heaven.”
John was asked: What will you miss most about Lenore? His answer: “Her singing.” What will you miss about Jason? “Everything.”
When John died, on April 26, Lenore was cradling his head and singing “Amazing Grace.” Jason held his hand and his parents were at his side. More than 1,000 mourners attended his funeral service, which was officiated by The Most Reverend Thomas J. Tobin, Bishop of the Diocese of Providence. He and John were personal friends, having bonded over their mutual love of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“John was here for Easter Sunday and my husband’s birthday on Monday,” Debbie says. “He spent those days with us and then he left to [be with] his grandfather in heaven.”
Working with Marco Polo Designs of Collingswood, N.J., a company specializing in jewelry created from Murano art glass, Swarovski crystals and precious metals, Debbie created a necklace featuring a cobalt blue glass heart – blue was John’s favorite color – and a choice of sterling silver pendants: a paw print or cross.
“I just was thinking; I wanted to memorialize John. The heart [represents that] he was pure heart. It’s subtle, low-key.” Proceeds from the necklace, which costs $50, benefit the John Montanaro Fund for veterinary oncology at Ocean State Veterinary Hospital in East Greenwich.
It can be ordered on Debbie’s web site and is available at Sweet Twist on Post Road and Consignors on Main Street, both in East Greenwich, and Alicia’s on Post Road in North Kingstown. She can also be contacted by email at
“I just don’t want people to forget him,” she says. “It would be a second death.”

Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN and can be reached at

Southern Rhode Island Newspapers
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