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Giving comfort to furry friends

Cole Merle has always had a heart for service. But the kids the 6-year-old is choosing to help with his latest effort are a little closer to his heart.

Cole's Christmas Furry Friends Fund is raising money to purchase stuffed animals for "sick kids" at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland. Specifically, the children in Doernbecher's 10 South, the inpatient oncology wing.

Just last month, Cole was one of those sick kids on the 10th floor.

During his frequent stays there, Cole found comfort in the furry friends given to every child who enters the hospital. Stinky the skunk and Scratchy the cat still sleep with Cole every night.

"They're some of his most cherished stuffed animals now," said Cole's mother, Ann Hackman.

So now that he's home, Cole wants to make sure kids at the hospital have plenty of cuddle buddies.

"When you get toys you feel better," Cole said. "Sometimes maybe they'll feel like they're at home for a little while."

Cole's diagnosis

Cole was only 4 years old when doctors found a tumor the size of a football growing on his kidney.

The family moved from New York to Brush Prairie in August 2011. The next month, Cole was complaining about a stomach ache. Cole's dad, Tim Merle, rubbed Cole's belly and felt what he described as a mass. Cole's physician suspected a Wilms' tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer primarily affecting children. Wilms' tumor is the most common type of kidney cancer among kids and most often affects children ages 3 to 4, according to the Mayo Clinic.

One week later, Cole had his kidney removed. The tumor, which weighed about 2 1/2 pounds, had grown so big on his kidney that it was touching his liver and spleen. Doctors also discovered the cancer had metastasized, spreading to his lungs. They found more than 100 cancerous spots on his lungs.

After the surgery, Cole underwent outpatient chemotherapy treatment. The chemo wrapped up on March 29, 2012 -- Cole's 5th birthday. The family celebrated Cole's birth and his life.

Six months later, he was again diagnosed with cancer. In January 2013, Cole had surgery to remove a portion of his lung. Then, the chemotherapy treatment began again.

This time, though, the chemo was more intensive. Every third week, Cole was admitted to Doernbecher for five days of chemotherapy. For 20 hours a day, the drugs were pumped into his body through a port.

By November, his body couldn't handle the treatment any longer. His bone marrow was taking longer and longer to recover from the treatment. Doctors decided to stop chemotherapy early; he still had 66 weeks of treatment remaining. Doctors and the family are hopeful the week of full-chest radiation Cole underwent in June destroyed the cancer.

But for the next several years, Cole and his family will live scan-to-scan. Every three months, Cole has a CT scan to check for cancer.

"Just pray nothing shows up on them," Tim said.

Giving in remission

In the meantime, Cole is in remission. Cole still worries the cancer will return -- when someone knocked on the family's front door recently, Cole worried it was the doctor coming to tell him he had to resume treatment -- but remission means he doesn't have to spend the holidays in the hospital.

Cole knows other kids aren't as lucky. That's why he decided to raise money to purchase stuffed animals for children at Doernbecher.

Family and friends helped Cole quickly surpass his $150 goal. He's now up to more than $600. That means, he can purchase not only stuffed animals but toys for bed-ridden kids to enjoy. His Christmas shopping list includes Legos, Play-Doh, art pads, travel-size board games and glow-in-the-dark crayons.

In addition to his fundraiser website, Cole has taken his project to others in the community, where he's found additional support.

His classmates at The Gardner School in Vancouver are filling a collection bin with toys. And a Vancouver Starbucks donated 10 gift cards for parents with kids at Doernbecher to use at the hospital's coffee shop.

Cole will deliver all the toys to Doernbecher on Dec. 24.

Even when Cole was a regular patient at Doernbecher he was raising money for other sick kids.

In late August, Cole and his sister, Magaidh (pronounced "Maggie"), held a lemonade and cookie stand. They used the $75 they raised to buy stuffed animals and Beanie Babies for Doernbecher. Cole delivered the gifts during his next chemotherapy admission.

Now that Cole no longer considers himself one of the sick kids, he wants to lift the spirits of other children -- one furry friend at a time.

"Anything to bring a smile to a kid's face when they're there for a week at a time," Ann said. "It impacted him enough to do it for other kids."