By Amanda Hatfield Anderson
BREVARD -- The summer following high school graduation is supposed to be one of the most exciting times of one's life.
As recent graduates celebrate the end of one era, they begin to prepare for their futures, be it starting in the workforce or going away to college.
The future of one Brevard County teen, however, has been put on hold, as he is fighting for his life.
On June 11, Tyler Ward, 18, a recent Heritage High School graduate, was diagnosed with aplastic anemia after returning home from a camping trip to Wakeiva Springs with friends.
The Mayo Clinic defines aplastic anemia as a condition that occurs when the body ceases to produce enough new blood cells. It is a rare and serious condition that can develop at any age; the condition can also occur suddenly or over time.
"When Tyler got home, he had a rash on his feet," said Jason Ward, a lieutenant for Brevard County Fire Rescue and Tyler's dad. "There were these little red dots on his feet, unlike any rash I've seen before."
Lt. Ward asked Tyler if the rash was itchy or if it hurt, but Tyler said no. His father told him to keep an eye on the rash.
In one week's time, the rash on Tyler's feet had spread up his legs and onto his torso, so Lt. Ward made an appointment for his son to see a dermatologist.
"The Sunday before the appointment, Tyler came to me because his gums were bleeding," Lt. Ward said. "The next morning, we went to a walk-in clinic."
When Tyler and his father arrived at the clinic, the nurse said that the rash looked like a platelet problem and told them to go to the hospital for blood work.
"Tyler didn't feel bad at all, so we were making jokes in the car," Lt. Ward recalled.
After a battery of tests at Holmes Regional Medical Center, Lt. Ward and Tyler then received news that would forever alter their lives.
"The E.R. doctor said his white blood cell counts were very low and his platelet count was off, too," Lt. Ward said. "This was why his gums were bleeding. Those were signs of blood cancer, or leukemia."
On June 12, Tyler was transferred to Florida Hospital in Orlando, where he would receive further pediatric treatment; those aged 21 or younger are considered pediatric patients.
After rounds of tests and speaking with the doctors, Dr. Khaled, a hematologist, said that he did not see any leukemia cells in Tyler's blood, but believed that Tyler had aplastic anemia.
"The chances of getting this are one to two kids out of one million, and my son has it," Lt. Ward said. "The causes can be hereditary, through medication or by a virus."
It was determined via bone marrow biopsy that Tyler's aplastic anemia had been caused by a virus.
"Tyler's immune system has been fighting the virus in the bone marrow, and the body became confused and began attacking his bone marrow," Lt. Ward said. "Because of this, his bone marrow was wiped out. He's at very high risk to get sick and virtually has no immune system."
In an effort to combat the condition, doctors at Florida Hospital decided to treat the virus in Tyler's bone marrow with an antiviral medication in the hope that the bone marrow would regrow itself. Because Tyler's immune system was so confused already, it attacked the bone marrow further, making the doctor's attempt void.
"Tyler's spirits took a nose dive after that," Lt. Ward said. "The next best treatment option is a bone marrow transplant from an immediate family member."
Lucky for Tyler, his younger sister Mika, 14, was a perfect match. Lt. Ward said that this was a miracle, as the likelihood of Mika being a match was 25-percent.
"They are very close," Lt. Ward said of his children.
After learning about his sister being a match, Tyler began taking anti-rejection medication, as well as chemotherapy on July 4, to help prepare his body for the transplant. Tyler is set to undergo one round of chemotherapy, but will remain on the anti-rejection medication for one year.
Mika, who will be a freshman at Heritage High School this fall, said she was not nervous for the transplant.
"Tyler and I are very close," she said. "I've had time to process all of this, but Tyler getting sick was very hard at first. Making the decision to be Tyler's donor was simple."
On July 9, Tyler and Mika underwent the bone marrow transplant process. Mika's bone marrow was drawn from her hips.
After retrieving Mika's bone marrow, it was processed down into stem cells and transferred into Tyler's PICC line, which is similar to an I.V.
"Dr. Khaled said Mika had great bone marrow, with a very high cell count," Lt. Ward said. "She is a little sore, but otherwise doing well. Tyler has been getting his butt kicked by chemo and anti-rejection medication, but is feeling better each day."
Lt. Ward, who has taken leave from work through September, said he is extremely grateful to have his firefighter brothers.
"I have a great support system through the firefighters, and I'm off until then because guys are working to cover my shifts, so I can spend as much time as I can with my family," Lt. Ward said. "They stepped up when I needed them most."
Lt. Ward has also received support from a fellow firefighter, who lost his son to cancer nearly seven years ago.
Eric Hargreaves, a Melbourne Fire Department fire fighter, lost his son, Sean, to leukemia on Dec. 19, 2006. Sean was a talented soccer goal keeper and senior at Melbourne High School, who had originally been diagnosed with the deadly disease during his sophomore year.
"Eric contacted Sean's doctors at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, and they agreed to take Tyler as a patient," Lt. Ward said. "For a week and a half, I was an emotional wreck, but Eric said he was once where I was and arranged so much for us."
Sean's doctor contacted Dr. Khaled at Florida Hospital and discussed what treatment Tyler was receiving.
"He said that Dr. Khaled was doing everything he would do in Boston," Lt. Ward said. "I'm not a crier, but I cried."
Tyler will need to stay at Florida Hospital over the next four to six weeks, as he is still at risk. There is a 20-percent chance Tyler will not survive the transplant, due to immune system rejection or infection.
"After the six weeks is over, or when his numbers improve, Tyler will be released from the hospital, but needs to stay in Orlando for 100 days," Lt. Ward said. "He needs to stay close because he will have two to three doctors' visits per week, in order to check blood and platelet levels."
When Tyler is released, the Wards will no longer be able to stay at the Ronald McDonald House -- a center where families can stay, while their child is in the hospital. Lt. Ward said they are currently trying to find a place to stay in Orlando, once Tyler is released.
"Life for Mika and me will go back to somewhat normal," Lt. Ward added. "She'll be back in school, and I'll be back to work, but we'll commute to Orlando every weekend."
Tyler's mother will stay with him full-time.
"It will take roughly one year for Tyler to fully recover from the transplant," Lt. Ward said. "At the one-year mark, Tyler will have to receive every shot he has ever received in his life, in order to reboot his system."
Lt. Ward insists that his son is fighting as hard as he can, and keeping a great attitude throughout the process.
"But as his friends leave for college, he gets a little bummed that he isn't on the same track with them," Lt. Ward added.
Tyler was set to start at Eastern Florida State College on July 1, but had to withdraw from his courses due to his illness.
"Friends have visited Tyler every day," Lt. Ward said. "Sometimes, he forgets that he is in the hospital."
For more information about Tyler Ward's condition, or to make a financial donation to his medical expenses, visit http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/firefighters-for-tyler/66304.