It was Good Friday and the yellow marshmallow peeps were nestled in the Easter baskets readied for 3-year-old Knox McFarland and his not-yet-2-year-old brother Nash.
Plans were in place to meet with friends at their church that Friday morning for a family fun celebration in anticipation of Easter Sunday.
The McFarland boys were of the age to appreciate the baskets, hidden eggs and Sunday’s large family gathering and the young Gilbert parents Kendyll and Preston, both 30, were equally excited to see their reactions.
However, the discovery of a lump in their youngest son’s stomach during a routine diaper change upended their weekend plans – and their lives.
The parents had phoned their pediatrician about the lump, and readied for an 11 a.m. appointment. They were still able to attend a planned children’s gathering with friends at The Grove in Gilbert before heading to their pediatrician.
“We went and our doctor felt Nash’s belly and said that he wasn’t certain what it was and that Nash needed scans,” Kendyll recalled. “So we went home as they called a couple of imaging places to try to squeeze us in before the holiday weekend, but no one had availability. Our doctor sent us to Phoenix Children’s Hospital knowing that this would be the best place for us.”
This was the first visit to an emergency room for either son.
“What we didn’t anticipate was a 6 1/2 hour wait in the ER as we watched countless families go in front of us before it was our turn,” recalled Kendyll.
“But once we made it past the waiting room, tests and information came quickly – but bad news compiled even quicker. Two enemas, x-ray, ultrasound, IV, blood test, CT scan. Then it’s wait, wait, wait, wait for results.”
“In addition, little Nash hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since our pediatrician appointment in case he needed an emergency surgery, so after 12 hours he finally got fluids and after 24 hours he was able to eat,” added Kendyll.
Making the day even more stressful was a call from her mother telling Kendyll her father was dying.
“On the way to Phoenix Children’s Hospital my mom called me and let me know that my dad was passing away soon and that I needed to get to our family home immediately.”
“My dad was in hospice and dying from cancer. He’d had about a five-year journey of trying to fight cancer, but the last couple of weeks he’d been declining quickly. … Preston waited with Nash and I went to tell my dad goodbye.”
Test results came in an avalanche the next day – and they weren’t good. Nash was admitted to PCH’s seventh floor for oncology and blood disorders. Kendyll returned to be with Nash and her husband, yet not for long.
“All of a sudden life starts to change in the matter of minutes. That evening, Saturday, my Dad died around 8:30. So about 10, I once again left Nash and Preston to be with my family until the morgue came at 2 a.m. to pick up my dad.
“I went back to the hospital because we had early morning procedures scheduled for Sunday morning, Easter. We didn’t know then that it would take several days to get a diagnosis.”
The diagnosis was devastating.
“His CT scan showed three large tumors, though we found out later via MRI that there are actually four,” said Preston, a brand director for Bad Birdie Golf. ”Blood results indicated heptatoblastoma – a very rare cancerous tumor in the liver.”
“This was not anything any human being would ever want or expect to hear,” he continued. “How could 75% of our 21-month-old son’s liver be covered in cancerous tumors? Our hearts hit the floor, tears fell uncontrollably.”
And yet, Preston and Kendyll found miracles even in the mundane, and it kept their faith strong.
“Throughout the first couple of days there are a series of tests- CT, MRI, ECO, EKG, hearing test, port placement. Throughout this, God is working miracles and giving us unwavering strength to have peace with our outcome.
“At this point in the process, there was no timeline for treatment or if treatment is even an option,” said Kendyll.
“During the first time Nash was put under anesthesia, one of Preston’s NAU classmates was our nurse; we saw this as God saying ‘I’m here with you’” she said.
“The next day Nash was put back under and my brother’s friend was our pre-op nurse and a different family friend was our post-op nurse. Also in this procedure, the nurse was Kendall, and the doctor was Dr. Miller. My maiden name was Kendyll Miller. So, ‘Kendyll Miller’ was in the room with our little boy. Coincidence? Nope. God.”
The McFarlands, who have a large extended family in the East Valley including grandparents who reside in Ahwatukee, typically gather together for holidays, said Kendyll.
“We were supposed to host Easter this year, and by the grace of God we still ended up hosting it - just at the hospital. At sunset on Easter our entire family: our parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles gathered on the front lawn of the hospital for a time of prayer and celebration.
“We created a poster sign that hangs in our hospital window every time we go, reading “I am strong”.
She said those words are from the Bible verse, Joshua 1:9 which reads in part: ‘Remember, have I not commanded you to be strong and courageous?”
“The nurses stayed with Nash while Preston and I headed downstairs to be embraced by our family and to fill them in on what we knew. We were able to see our 3-year-old son, Knox, and it was important to us that we told him together why we are still at the hospital.
“We also had Knox look around at everyone who surrounded him and let him know these were his people when Mama and Daddy can’t be home. We cried, we laughed, we prayed and we looked up at Nash standing in the window and as a family put up our muscles and yelled ‘we are strong!’”
More than 20 family members – grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousin – took part in the Easter gathering outside PCH and below Nash’s seventh floor window.
“This was a time for prayer, comforting, and joining together in the struggle,” he said.
“We adopted the motto: I Am Strong. Nash showed us his muscles while standing on the windowsill. We flexed back,” said the dad, who at age 19 had Joshua 1:9 tattooed on his ribs.
Since that Easter weekend, life has been a continual whirlwind with doctor and hospital visits.
Nash had his second round of an expected six cycles of chemotherapy on May 10th. There is much ahead for the formerly active and precocious toddler, who will turn 2 in July.
“It is 100% that he’ll need surgery,” admitted Kendyll. “It could be a liver reduction or a liver transplant.”
As the newest ‘Armer Kid’ in the Armer Foundation for Kids, an Ahwatukee-based nonprofit helping families with children with extreme medical conditions, funds are being raised to help the family cope with the unexpected expenses.
For more information on Nash McFarland and other ‘Armer Kids’ see the nonprofit’s website at ArmerFoundation.org
The road ahead for Nash McFarland and his family looks rough, and yet Preston and Kendyll say holding to their faith helps them move on.
“In the early stages of this Preston and I had a choice, do we be vulnerable and let people in and share our story so we are not alone, or do we try to carry this journey alone and keep it private.
“We opted into vulnerability and transparency. We are sharing our highs and lows, successes and struggles with whoever wants to join us on this journey. We are also able to share the light and love of our God who is a good God.
“He doesn’t bring evil to the world. That’s our enemy who brings darkness and self-doubt, depression, pain and suffering,” continued Kendyll. “Our God fights for us and protects us during this journey. The peace and love this surrounded us during these crucial hours was incredible.
“Peace and love continue to cover our family even during these valleys and what may be the most difficult time of our life.”
Preston said they continue their practice of daily affirmations with their sons.
“We say, ‘I am’ and they give us three responses. Knox often says ‘intelligent, courageous, loved.’ Nash has always said “I am strong.”