Marco Martinez has two problems: The tumor on his spine that could paralyze him. And the $6,000 he needs for the surgery to remove it. Martinez, 35, has a young family that relies on him and a landscaping job that puts food on the table. But he doesn't have health insurance. So Martinez, a native of Mexico who recently earned his U.S. work permit, is taking on all the work he can, scrimping and saving his way toward the surgery.
Even with the doctor deeply discounting his fees and the hospital offering charity care, it's $6,000.
"I didn't want people to feel sorry for me," Martinez said. "And I didn't want other people to have to pay my bills."
The tight-knit community of east Pasco had other ideas.
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Martinez first came to the United States in 1997 looking for work and a fresh start. He saved his money and traveled back and forth to Mexico, where he helped raise his siblings. Then he met a woman named Sonya Slover, a soft brunet with kind eyes. As their relationship blossomed, Martinez realized his heart and his home were now in Florida.
The couple married in April 2011. Martinez planned to adopt Slover's three sons — Christopher, 11; Alex, 8; and Anthony, 4 — and within a year they had a new addition to the family, baby Marco, now 4 months old.
"His children are always his top priority," Slover said.
Martinez obtained his work permit and his driver's license, and began preparing for a November court date to procure his legal United States residency.
Then in June, he was injured in a minor car accident.
A routine MRI revealed he had an astrocytoma tumor. Doctors believe the medium-sized tumor is benign, but because it is latched to Martinez's spine, it could still have a catastrophic effect on his life and health.
"The doctors told us that, if allowed to grow, the tumor would affect his bladder and bowel functions and cause leg weakness," said Slover, who works as a medical assistant at Family Medical Center in Dade City.
If the tumor was not removed, doctors told Martinez, it was possible he could lose his ability to walk.
"My husband cried," said Slover. "He said, 'I'm not afraid to die, my heart is right with the Lord. But I don't want to leave my children behind.' "
Surgery would cost at least $12,000. Martinez had no insurance, and because he is not yet an American citizen, he does not qualify for Medicaid.
"We went from doctor to doctor, and no one would do the surgery," Slover said.
Finally the couple visited HealthPoint Medical Group in Tampa, where they met Dr. Gabriel Gonzales-Portillo, a neurological surgeon who agreed to significantly discount his fees. St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa qualified Martinez for charity care, hospital spokeswoman Jacqueline Tolley said.
"It was such a blessing," said Slover.
Still, they'd have to come up with $6,000.
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People in east Pasco recognize Martinez. He stops if he sees a stranded motorist or someone needing a ride. He brought someone's lost cell phone to the Dade City Police Department. When he found a wallet with cash in a Zephyrhills gas station parking lot, he gave the billfold to the attendant.
When people heard Martinez needed help, they started organizing fundraisers.
"This is in our own back yard and we need to do something here," said Margarita Romo, executive director of Farmworkers Self-Help. "This community is a loving place, and we all care about each other."
Romo coordinated with Farmworkers staff and the San Antonio Rotary Club to organize events. On Aug. 4, a Mexican luncheon served outside Badcock & More Home Furniture in Dade City raised $1,000. Starting at 8 a.m. Saturday, Family Medical Center at 13438 Fort King Road in Dade City will host a car wash and yard sale.
Slover's aunt, Bonnie Krummen, is planning a Sept. 8 charity golf tournament at Triple SSS Ranch on U.S. 301 in Dade City (call 352-467-2211 for details). And a bank account for Martinez's medical costs has been established at CenterState Bank, 14045 Seventh St. in Dade City.
At first too proud to seek any help, Martinez now finds himself humbled by it.
"My wife is doing everything she can to find help for me," he said.
"He lets me know how much he appreciates what I'm doing for him," Slover said. "And I appreciate him just as much."