What about me? Growing up with a seriously sick sibling

Published: Saturday, Feb. 16 2013 6:00 a.m. MST

Sydney Sherwood, then 6, cuddles her baby brother Billy. He was diagnosed with neuroblastoma when he was 13 months old.

Family photo

MARLBORO, N.J. — From Sydney Sherwood's perspective, the tumor that threatened her baby brother's life was also a parent snatcher. When she was 6, her mom and dad took her baby brother, Billy, to the doctor. They didn't come back for 32 days — the first time.

Five years later, Billy is mostly home and doing better. Right now, there's no sign of cancer. But nearly 11 years old, Sydney is still anxious and paces the house at least once a night, checking to see that everyone's where they belong. She sometimes settles at the foot of Dena and Billy Sherwood Sr.'s bed, so they'll have to wake her if they must disappear in the night for yet another in what has been a years-long series of trips to the hospital.

Serious illness seldom settles only on one child. It engulfs and changes brothers and sisters, too. Experts say if the "other" children are not handled with care, results can be as devastating as the disease that started it all.

There's no way to count all the children with life-altering diseases and injuries, much less how many siblings they have. There are ways, though, to get a sense of the magnitude. Consider, for instance, that more than 175 hospitals nationwide only treat children, and that children also are seen daily at hundreds of other hospitals.

Or you can translate disease-specific numbers into something familiar that offers clues. Kids and classrooms go together; think of the nation's average, 25-child classroom. The 13,400 new cases of cancer diagnosed in kids this year would fill 536 classrooms that size. You could fill 54 a year with children who won't survive cancer, often after years of illness; more than 200 classrooms with kids born with serious heart defects; and 20,000 classrooms with babies born prematurely. Those are just a few of the health categories that send families scrambling.

Now try to imagine how many brothers and sisters all those children have.

Jumbled households

When Sara Flash was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma days before her 12th birthday, the lives of her two little brothers changed dramatically, too. Their grandparents moved in and mom and Sara moved out for weeks at a time. Dad needed to work and spend time at the hospital, too, so he was gone more.

The same thing happened to Jason and Wendy Magera's Helena, Mont., household when their Sarah, now 13, was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago. Mom and Sarah headed to Salt Lake City, leaving Pyper, now 3, and Heather, 9, home with dad and grandparents who moved in to help. One of the "grands" often stays in Salt Lake with Wendy and Sarah, who has been at Primary Children's Medical Center off and on; they once rented a Utah apartment for 10 months. Sarah needs a bone marrow transplant.

Allison Flash went with Sara to the children's hospital; the grandparents, retired but living elsewhere, packed up their lives and pitched in, moving in with Ed Flash and Sara's brothers: Adam in fourth grade, Daniel in kindergarten.


Children naturally see things in terms of how it affects them, says Susan Bartell, New York psychologist and author of "The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask." When a sibling ails, they worry about what will happen and if it could happen to them, too.

"Kids are very focused on fairness," says Rachelle Krolle, child life specialist at Primary Children's Medical Center. "An adult sees a child with extra medical needs; the other children may see a child who gets more time with parents. Probably the biggest thing we see is jealousy, feeling left out."

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