BRIDGEPORT — Last month after a comedy gig, Vinnie Hickey woke up with a swollen tongue.
“I found out by noon I had cancer. That fast. It was really quick,” he said.
Just like that, the neighborhood’s beloved funny guy has fallen victim of a brutal form of cancer requiring intense chemotherapy treatments and lengthy stays in the hospital.
“No work for a year the doctors told me,” Hickey, 35, said from his bed at University of Illinois Hospital.
Now, the neighborhood that helped shape Hickey — he’s always been known around Bridgeport as “Cousin Vinnie” — is rallying to help him pay his medical bills.
Casey Cora tells the story of "Cousin Vinnie" and his battle with leukemia:
“He’s such a good guy,” said longtime friend Leanne Scanlon, co-owner of the Hardscrabble gift store at 3333 S. Halsted St. “He makes everyone so happy and cheerful.”
Already in the works is a May 13 fundraiser at Ricobene’s in Bridgeport, the famous-for-its-breaded-steaks local chain restaurant where Hickey used to work as a general manager.
Ricky March is another of Hickey’s pals. He’s helping to host the Ricobene’s comedy bash, which will include an auction of donated items, a 50-50 raffle, and sets and sketches from local comedians.
"We’re going to put on a great show. Lots of interactive stuff. One of the things were doing, it’s going to be hysterical or a complete bust, is auctioning off a date with the cast of 'Death of a Cannoli Salesman,'" a dinner theater play authored by Hickey, March said.
"We’re not pimping people out or anything. You pay, have a drink and get some dinner. It’s just another way to get some money for Vinnie.”
That’s all in addition to the website friends have set up for donations — more than $8,000 has been raised in just a few weeks — and a forthcoming sale of a T-shirt created by Scanlon depicting Hickey as a cartoon.
“He’s a pretty popular guy and people will want this shirt. We want to help any way we can,” she said.
Surrounded by balloons and cards, and at least one racy pinup photo, Hickey said he’s ready to fight the illness, technically called Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a quickly progressing cancer that the American Cancer Society says "would probably be fatal within a few months" if not treated.
He's already in the middle of his first “chemo course," a liquid cocktail of drugs fed intravenously in varying doses for weeks at a time, which has caused headaches, stomach pain and a serious fever. Those sessions take six to eight weeks each. In between, he'll get 10 days at home.
An optimistic guy, Hickey said the cancer will give him more time to write, including putting the finishing touches on "Who Killed the King," "a 'murder musical' where Elvis dies on the [toilet] and you have to find out who killed him."
For now, he's confined to the hospital, plotting his ultimate return to the neighborhood for what will be a family reunion, one that stars everyone's favorite cousin.
The "Cousin Vinnie" fundraiser is scheduled for 7-9 p.m. May 13 at Ricobene's, 252 W. 26th St. Suggested donation for admission is $10. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.