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Dying boy knows the value of a dream

Dreams come in different sizes.

For 7-year-old John-O Vengoechea, the dream was big: to ride in a helicopter. Three years ago, the Suncoast Children's Dream Fund made his wish come true.

For Antonio "Tony" Brown, 6, his dream was something smaller: a bicycle to call his own.

On Friday, Tony's dream came true, thanks to John-O.

The boys met on the playground at All Children's Hospital. John-O, who is in the final stages of a fatal lung condition, was too weak to talk. Tony, a hemophiliac, was so overcome with shyness that he could hardly talk either. But they shared a simple handshake to seal the deal.

"He decided he wanted to give somebody else their dream wish," said John-O's mother, Leslie Vengoechea. "He told me, "I want another boy to have the bike.' "

In 1989 Ms. Vengoechea learned her son had leukemia. While undergoing two years of chemotherapy, John-O decided he wanted to ride in a helicopter over his grandparents' home.

The Dream Fund, a non-profit organization that makes wishes come true for ill children, arranged for a Coast Guard helicopter to pick up him and his grandfather, Bud Rystrom. It flew them over their home on 25th Avenue N in St. Petersburg, then soared over the Sunshine Skyway bridge and along the coast.

For a while, John-O seemed to be getting better. But in January, he suffered a relapse. Doctors found his brother Timmy to be a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant, which cured his leukemia.

Then two months ago, he was diagnosed with a reactive airway disease, a complication that arose after the transplant weakened his immune system. There is no possibility of a lung transplant, Ms. Vengoechea said, because John-O could not survive it.

Several months ago, John-O's aunt won a bicycle for him in a drawing. But in his weakened condition it was clear he never would be able to ride it.

Three years is a long time in such a short life, but John-O remembered how important a dream can be.

Officials at All Children's Hospital put him in touch with Tony, who wanted a bike. On Friday, Tony's parents, Teretha and Ernest Brown held their son as tried out John-O's shiny bicycle.

"I have to be very careful with him," Mrs. Brown said. "I have knee pads, elbow pads and a helmet. But he gets so excited."

Tony is a lively, busy boy in spite of the leg brace he must wear because of an injury. But he decided he had better wait for the bike to have training wheels before taking a solo ride.

John-O watched him, his head down on a picnic table, his eyes heavy from the morphine he must take to dull his pain.

John-O hasn't eaten in 22 days, his mother said. He just sips water and sometimes a little Gatorade. He knows he is dying.

"He knows exactly," said his mother, "and he knows there's nothing more we can do. He's even told me he's 30th in line to get into heaven." She does not know where he got that number.

"He talks a lot at night," Ms. Vengoechea said. "He talks about seeing his grandma and his friend B.G. Childers who died in All Children's. He's not afraid. There's not a bit of fear in this child."

Seven years seems like such a short time to live. But in his seven years, John-O has seen his own wish fulfilled, and has granted the wish of someone else.

"I have my blue days," Ms. Vengoechea said. "But John-O's done just about everything in his little life he's wanted to do."