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The pity of this room – and its power – is that Anthony never got to use it. Not even on one of the nights when his sleep was plagued by nightmares and panic attacks, his body wracked with pain, his mind anxious and afraid.

But without the ordeal of the young Town of Tonawanda resident, the room wouldn't exist.

“It doesn't look like a hospital room,” said Cindy Mannino, Anthony's mother, gesturing with quiet satisfaction to the mini fridge, foldout couch and large flat-screen TV equipped with a video-gaming station.

“It looks like a dorm room.”

That was exactly what the Mannino family, and others who knew Anthony Vincent Mannino in his brief life, were going for: A room that hints at the carefree, easygoing life that Mannino didn't get to lead for very long as it makes hospital stays at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital easier for young adults who are dealing with serious illness.

Mannino was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in 2007 at age 19. He died at 21.

Now, through this special space in the Amherst hospital – the Anthony V. Mannino Room, No. 313 on the third floor – and through the work of a foundation that has been created in Mannino's name, those who have been inspired by his struggle are working t o make daily life better for others who follow in the difficult path he walked.

“It makes it a little more homelike than a regular hospital room,” said Christopher T. Lane, president of Millard Fillmore Suburban. “Anything we can do to make their stay better.”

The Anthony V. Mannino Foundation will hold its fifth annual fundraiser Saturday in the Castle in the City of Tonawanda.

Helping young people who are facing cancer and other serious illness is not easy for the Mannino family and others who knew Anthony.

Each time they connect with another family in similar circumstances, they relive some of the pain they experienced during the past six years.

But, if you ask Cindy Mannino, they simply have no choice.

“People say, 'How do you do this?' ” Cindy Mannino said. “If somebody knew Anthony – I know I am doing what he wants me to do.

“I look into their eyes, and I see Anthony.”

From college to cancer

It can be hard for the Manninos to believe the vital young man who loved cooking and tae kwon do – he held two black belts in the sport – is gone.

“Anthony was an old soul,” his mother said. “I feel him around me.”

Anthony had a larger-than-life personality, his family said. He had lots of friends and many interests. He was an excellent cook, put a priority on healthy eating and fitness, and liked to exercise. He worked part-time at Blockbuster and Wegmans.

“He was an extremely kind young man,” his mother said. “He could never understand meanness, or injustice. I knew he had a lot of friends, but I couldn't believe how many people showed up at his wake. I stood in one spot for five hours.”

Anthony – he never went by Tony – graduated from Kenmore East High School in 2005. He then started classes at Erie Community College, trying out criminal justice and the culinary arts as possible careers.

“He was a really good cook,” his mother said. “He was known for his pasta broccoli. He was known for his chicken Parmesan.”

In fall 2006, Anthony Mannino stood up in the wedding of his sister and only sibling, Stephanie. Pictures of him from that time in his life show a young man with dark good looks, lively eyes and a happy smile.

Six months after that wedding, in spring 2007, Anthony Mannino went to his pediatrician to have his abdomen checked out. He had been feeling some discomfort in his stomach. He was told it might have something to do with antibiotics he had taken for a sinus infection, his mother said.

“It just didn't go away,” Cindy Mannino said. “It went on for three weeks, the pain in the stomach.”

The pain then started to migrate to Anthony's right side.

“I just had a mother's instinct,” his mother said. “I knew something was not right.”

On April 19, Mannino and his family went to Millard Fillmore Suburban, where a series of tests was done, the family said. A bowel obstruction was ruled out and a stomach X-ray done. Then, Cindy Mannino said, the doctors in the ER told the family they had seen something on Anthony's liver.

“At that moment, your life goes into a tailspin,” she said.

He had cancer. He was 19.

Through the cracks

After that, things happened so quickly that even now it can be difficult for the Mannino family to distinguish one month from another.

The Manninos learned that Anthony had cancer of the esophagus that had spread elsewhere in his body. The form of cancer he had is rare, Cindy Mannino said.

“It's very, very rare,” she said. “It's typically a 55-, 65-year-old men's disease, who smokes and drinks. Anthony did neither.”

His struggle with the illness lasted two years.

In that time, Cindy Mannino said, the family learned what they call a hard truth about young adults with cancer: Their needs, both physical and emotional, are often misunderstood or overlooked.

“It's that 'tweener' age group,” said Cindy Mannino. “They're not pediatrics, and they're not geriatric. They're in-between.”

The Mannino family recalls the issues Anthony faced after his diagnosis – his night sweats and night terrors; his fragile emotional state when dealing with the knowledge he might have mere months to live; his inability to stay a full-time student because his treatments took up daytime hours.

And those are just a few of the challenges he dealt with.

“Panic attacks,” Cindy Mannino recalled, naming another. “Terrible, terrible panic attacks.”

She said that the progression of her son's illness was matched by the family's struggle from one problem to another, in trying to handle his needs during that time.

“It was living the 22 months of gaps that made this difficult for us,” said Cindy Mannino.

At Millard Fillmore Suburban, Lane, the hospital president, said the Mannino family made good points about the places where service to young adults with serious illness could be vastly improved.

“We understood there was an unmet need for the 'tweener' population,” said Lane. “We decided this would be a joint venture.”

A tribute to Anthony

And so the hospital turned Room 313 into a room designed to appeal to patients who are Anthony's age – and perhaps dealing with similar illness.

The room is painted and decorated in natural tones, with an Asian flavor to the decor – befitting Anthony's interest in all things Asian, his mother said.

The bathroom has granite-style counters, wood floors, glass tile in brown and rust tones. A desk and small fridge give an apartment or dorm room flair. There is a wood closet, a large flat-screen TV, stylish chairs and a pull-out couch, even a gaming station next to the bed.

“They designed a special tray, so they can play games, the nurse can come in, and there's not an interruption,” said Cindy Mannino.

“That room is in constant use,” said Lane. “It's a highly sought-after room.”

The hospital president said he sees the room as a tribute to the young man who never got to use it – and his family.

“Cindy's lived it,” said Lane, who said he never got to meet Anthony. “Hearing her passionate plea to help others really enabled us to help them.”

Since Anthony's death, his family has started a foundation, the Anthony V. Mannino Foundation, in his name.

Its goal is to help young adults dealing with cancer, through financial assistance and in other ways. Cindy Mannino is president of the organization; her husband, Tony, is the treasurer; and Anthony's sister, Stephanie, is vice president.

“I always say, 'Cancer is not cheap,' ” said Cindy Mannino. “We feel blessed that we weren't totally wiped out. You have to pay it forward.”

The foundation has helped 15 young people so far. Young adults in their 20s, even one 30-something, have been aided.

An annual fundraiser helps the organization raise money to meet its goals, she said.

Tickets for Saturday's annual fundraiser are priced at $25, pre-sale only. Basket raffles and other games will raise money to fund the work of the foundation, Cindy Mannino said.

“Every year, it's grown,” she said. “This year, we've sold 400 tickets.”

Anthony's mother said she hopes to see the foundation succeed, because she feels a commitment to changing the way cancer affects young people like her son.

“There is so much work to be done,” she said.

email: cvogel@buffnews.com