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Bringing hope and happiness: Tyler's story

December 22, 2011

The fight of a lifetime

On April 14, 2005 Tyler was diagnosed with Stage 4 Neuroblastoma, an aggressive childhood cancer. He was two weeks away from his fifth birthday, and he had no idea that he was about to embark upon the fight of his life.

He awoke in the middle of the night with a terrible stomachache, and his parents brought him to the emergency room. After performing some tests, doctors came to tell his parents their suspicion: cancer. Tyler’s mother, Angela, remembers, “Sitting there in the emergency room, I really thought that they had come to the wrong room. He had been perfectly healthy...there was no way he had cancer.”

Tyler was admitted to Arnold Palmer Hospital, and three days later he underwent exploratory surgery with the hope that his tumor could be removed. What surgeons found, though, were multiple tumors strangling his internal organs; Tyler’s cancer was inoperable.

Further complicating his diagnosis: the disease had already spread to his lymph nodes and bone marrow. Yet, despite this grim diagnosis, Tyler’s parents maintained a defiant optimism. Angela explains, “From the very beginning, I knew he could beat this. I knew that I couldn’t live without this kid, so I couldn’t let myself think anything else.”

For the next five months, Tyler was treated with an aggressive chemotherapy regimen. Tyler’s oncologists aimed to shrink the tumors enough for them to be removed surgically. He endured hair loss, mouth sores and intense vomiting. He lost 12 of his 40 pounds within the first month. He spent three weeks of every month in the hospital; it became their family’s home away from home.

By September, Tyler’s doctors were ready to attempt surgery again. They hoped that his tumors had become small enough to be removed. For more than four hours, three surgeons worked diligently to remove Tyler’s five remaining tumors. Incredibly, Tyler’s parents finally heard the news they had been praying for: despite a very challenging surgery, the surgeons successfully removed all of his tumors.

Tyler went on to receive another month of chemotherapy, a bone marrow transplant at Shands Hospital for Children at the University of Florida, as well as radiation therapy. Overall, Tyler spent a year and a half in therapy and 285 days in the hospital. In November of 2005, Tyler was officially declared cancer-free.

Giving back

After such an intense battle, one might assume that Tyler would never want to see the inside of a hospital again. But, this year Tyler returned to Arnold Palmer Hospital as he has done for the past six years since his diagnosis, and he didn’t come empty-handed. He brought more than 2,000 toys.

This Christmastime tradition began while Tyler was still receiving treatment. On Christmas Eve, his doctor gave him an unexpected surprise: he could go home for the weekend. Elated, the family packed up the car and headed home. To their surprise, they were welcomed into their home by family and friends who had put up their Christmas tree, decorated their house, bought and wrapped presents and cooked a wonderful meal.

However, a friend of Tyler’s who was also receiving treatment unexpectedly had to remain in the hospital for Christmas, and Tyler wanted to bring his friend a gift. Angela suggested that they also bring gifts for the other children on the oncology floor, eleven in all.

The following year, Tyler asked his parents if he could bring toys to kids in the hospital again, except this time he wanted to bring a toy for every child in the hospital. Each year, their efforts have grown. Tyler is now the CEO of his own non-profit organization called Toys for Tyler, Inc. Tyler says he continues to bring toys because, very simply, “it makes everyone happy.”

In addition to bringing toys to the hospital, they adopt two families for the holidays who are battling neuroblastoma. They bring Christmas decorations, presents for their children according to each child’s wish-list and food for the family’s holiday celebration.

Angela remembers, “When Tyler was sick, I was completely focused on him, taking care of him and my daughter, Nicole. I couldn’t think about those other things. Someone did those things for us, and I remember thinking that I would like to help someone else, to make it easier on them.”

The family has made it their mission to bring comfort to families who are suffering as they have suffered. They remember the struggles of having a sick child: one parent working while the other stays in the hospital, family members taking care of their other children, eating every meal from a styrofoam box.

Yet, it is these precarious moments in life when it seems more important than ever to spend the holiday celebrating your life and your love with one another. So, they choose to walk alongside other families who are traveling a familiar path and try to make it a little easier.

It seems, though, that the biggest gift that Tyler and his family bring to those fighting this terrible disease is the gift of hope. Tyler’s story is one of triumph and survival against all odds. For families who have received a devastating diagnosis, hope is what keeps them fighting day after day- the hope that their child, too, may escape cancer’s grip.

Tyler is a living, breathing gift of hope to each of these families. And that is a gift greater than anything you could wrap in a box.