By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, email@example.com
Andrew Eyerman’s first-grade class has been in session for several weeks now, but the brave little boy known for his giggles and “tooting” hasn’t been able to join his classmates yet.
At his desk sits a large stuffed bear, delivered by Riley Hospital for Children teacher Stacy Willett.
It’s part of the Riley School Program’s bear-in-the-chair program, which aims to help Riley patients feel a part of their home schools even as they are learning daily lessons in the hospital or at home.
Andrew was diagnosed with leukemia at just 14 months old, so he’s never known anything different, says his mom, Amber, a longtime Riley nurse who stepped away from bedside care in 2018.
She worked for many years in the burn unit Downtown and the PICU at IU Health North. That became more difficult when her son needed treatment.
“I’d be working in a room one day, then the next day I’d be a mom with my son in the same room,” she said. “I had to accept that that part of my nursing career was over.”
She now works as a school nurse, a job she loves and that doesn’t give her flashbacks, she said.
Andrew’s illness has been a difficult journey for the entire family, which also includes his dad, Fred, and siblings Carson and Samantha.
Carson, 14, has saved his little brother’s life twice by donating his own bone marrow. The boys are a 100% match, rare among siblings.
The bond they share is understandably special, says their mom, recalling a picture she took of the two not long after Andrew’s first chemo treatment.
“Carson was rocking him and asking him how his treatment was. He wanted to help. He didn’t understand bone marrow transplant and all that then, and we were hoping we would never need it.”
They did need it. Not once, but twice. First in 2020 and again in 2022. And as blessed as they are that they’ve not needed to go outside the family to find a match, having their older son bear that burden “adds another level of worry,” Amber said.
Still, she said, “Carson donates without blinking.”
Andrew’s leukemia has been beaten back into remission three times now. He’s been through years of chemo, radiation, stem cell transplants and CAR-T therapy, where his own immune cells were removed, “retrained” and reinfused to better attack the stubborn cancer.
Dr. Scott Goebel and Dr. Jodi Skiles have overseen his care on the stem cell side of care, for which Andrew’s parents are grateful.
“They are a huge part of our team,” Amber said. “Dr. Skiles has saved his life more than once.”
As she shares photos of Andrew with various physicians and nurses (special shout out to Jake Harmon) at Riley over the years, she adds, “This is my son’s life. He loves being at Riley. He doesn’t talk much about the sad parts, but the relationships that the nurses and doctors have formed with him he does not forget.”
We met the 7-year-old during an outpatient infusion appointment at Riley, where nurse practitioner Katlyn Antior talked about his journey. She has walked with him along this road since his first stem cell transplant two years ago.
“Andrew is an incredibly brave 7-year-old boy who loves Panda Express and all things Spiderman,” she said. “He has endured extensive therapies over the years, and despite it all, he continues to smile through it.”
One photo his mom took shows him grinning while wearing multiple strands of beads collected over the years, representing all of his procedures, surgeries, “brave days,” blood draws and more.
He is now three months out from his second stem cell transplant, thanks to his brother, and comes to Riley weekly for infusions to ensure his body continues to accept the donor cells.
“We’ll follow him closely for the next year from transplant to make sure he stays in remission,” Antior said.
After that, he’ll be followed by his oncologist, Dr. Sandeep Batra.
The New Palestine family is grateful for the care and support that has surrounded them since Andrew’s diagnosis, including from the schools, the soccer community, Andrew’s Army on Facebook and the Sugar Creek Fire Department, which Amber says has “spoiled our family over and over.”
They long for the days when they can spend Christmas at home – Andrew spent his second, fourth, sixth and seventh Christmases at Riley. But Amber says “Fizzy” the elf, who makes an appearance every Christmas, will find them wherever they are.