As parents tend a sick child, healthy siblings feel left out
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Republished online as originally printed in the Post-Gazette Oct. 7, 1997.
When asked years from now what she remembers most about her childhood, Tyler Myers likely will recall the night her little brother was rushed to the hospital.
Her 9-year-old life was changed from the moment her parents woke her up in July to take her to a neighbor's house in Oakmont.
Paul and Sharon Myers then spent the night at Children's Hospital with Alex, 6, who soon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
A few days later, Tyler had to go without the rest of the family on vacation to her grandparents' beach house, while her parents dealt with Alex's new regimen of hospital tests and treatments for the start of his three-year chemotherapy program.
Suddenly everyone was focusing on Alex.
Even though her parents called her every day, the conversations many times were dominated with news about Alex.
"What presents did Alex get today?" Tyler would ask during each telephone call.
Her grandparents tried to divert her attention, but Tyler seemed distracted. She wore her glasses into the ocean and lost them on the first wave. When Tyler came home, Sharon Myers noticed that her daughter had started biting her nails.
"It's so hard for siblings because they're thinking, 'What about me?' or 'the only way to get attention in this family is to get sick,' " said Janet Heckman, clinical oncology social worker at Children's.
Sharon Myers offered to read the American Cancer Society's "When Your Brother Or Sister Has Cancer" with her.
Tyler took the book and went to her room to read it alone.
Tyler later said she sometimes feels sad, sometimes angry and sometimes left out - all emotions discussed in the 15-page paperback.
But when asked now about these feelings, Tyler shrugs her shoulders, then runs off with friends - her silky, light brown hair flying behind her. Sharon and Paul were not sure whether to let Tyler visit Alex in the hospital until he refused to see anyone except his sister.
"It can help to see what's going on at the hospital because (the healthy) sibling sometimes think that Mom and Dad are off having a good time," said Brent Furlong, oncology social worker who has been counseling the Myers' family.
Tyler sat with her brother as he lay tethered to machines that dripped chemicals into his tiny body.
After he was released from the hospital, she accompanied Alex and her parents three times a week to Children's Marty Ostrow Oncology Outpatient Clinic for treatments requiring even more needles.
Since then, Alex often climbs into bed at night with his sister long after she has fallen asleep. He said his favorite stuffed doll, Bobby, isn't comforting enough at night.
"Maybe you should do a science project about leukemia," Paul Myers suggested to Tyler one day. He thought that would be a way for Tyler to ask questions both she and her fourth-grade classmates would have about Alex's disease.
"Is it icky?" she asked.
"It's educational," her father said.
"Nah, no thanks."
Last month, Tyler attended Children's annual Sibs Day. She and about a dozen other healthy siblings toured the operating room in sterile scrubs and sat in the emergency helicopter that had just landed on the hospital's roof. ?While parents talked in another room, the youngsters gave injections to lifelike dolls and some even volunteered to experience the finger pricks their siblings receive for blood counts.
Tyler covered her ears.
"Not me! No way!"
She took home souvenirs, including surgical gloves and scrubs, a hand-made pin and commemorative T-shirt.
Later, she and Alex played doctor - with Bobby as their patient. ?To help Tyler cope with all the attention given to Alex, Sharon Myers has been trying to spend more time on things that concern her daughter.
A science project assigned by Tyler's fourth-grade teacher at Tenth Street School has provided a perfect opportunity for this: Students have to collect and identify 75 different kinds of leaves by later this month.
"We've had a really good time," said Sharon Myers. "How often do you get to go out with your kids and just look for leaves?"
And two weeks ago, Tyler, her mother, father and brother spent a weekend at the beach - together.
First Published June 17, 2009 12:00 am