On Jan 10, Nash McFarland, 2½, of Gilbert was the focus of an awards ceremony on the lawn outside the Phoenix Children’s Hospital.
Wearing an oversized “I Am Strong” shirt that draped to his knees, Nash smiled broadly if shyly as a gold medal proclaiming “Chemo Grad” was placed around his neck.
A framed Certificate of Bravery, like the medal, markedg the end of his in-patient chemo treatments. It was signed with well-wishes by more than a dozen medical staff members as his parents, Preston and Kendyll McFarland beamed at their younger of two sons.
Nash’s gray T-shirt with its green memorial ribbon reflects the motto, based on the verse from Joshua 1:9, the McFarland family adopted last April when their son was rushed to the emergency room with swelling in his side.
They celebrated that Easter Sunday with a large family contingency that gathered below their seventh floor window at Phoenix Children’s Hospital’s oncology floor.
They prayed together, sang joyously of Christ’s resurrection, and blew kisses up to the boy who had anticipated a much different Easter Sunday.
His parents had made a sign reading “I Am Strong” and Nash flexed his muscles. The more than 20 family members gathered below flexed back.
The McFarland family faced a long road as their son was diagnosed a few days later with hepatoblastoma, a rare type of liver cancer found in fewer than one in a million children through age 3.
Four large tumors were found on his liver.
Last July, Nash was in surgery for a liver resection when it was determined one tumor was too close to a main blood vessel, making the resection impossible. The boy was sewn back up.
Receiving that disheartening news was hard on his 31-year-old parents, who’d already faced many discouraging reports since the day before Easter 2022, when they’d discovered a lump in his stomach during an early morning diaper change.
“Kendyll and I had great trust in the surgeon working on the resection – Dr. Ramin Jamshidi. We fully believed, and continue to believe, he’d act in the best interest of Nash from the get-go. So, when he told us a resection was not possible, we knew it was for good reason and it was the right choice,” said Preston.
“From the very start, Kendyll and I fully expected hiccups and major setbacks throughout Nash’s journey. And, unfortunately, we know the future will be far from easy or normal as a cancer-free future is not promised. But stressing about something that you have absolutely no control over never helps and always hurts.
“So instead, we release it. Talk about it. Ask for help. Don’t do it alone. Hand it over to whatever or whoever you choose. As I said early in our journey, we don’t believe in coincidences or the right place at the right time. We know God is good and He’s got us.”
The couple moved forward with their search for a liver donor.
At least two were presented yet not chosen. They also went to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to be placed on their transplant list.
“Nash’s team was very selective of the liver,” Kendyll explained. “We waited two months for the right one, and we are very grateful to the family who donated their child’s liver. He received his new liver Nov. 3.
“God has been our strength. We’ve learned to trust His timing and not our own.”
Preston said his son’s transplant wasn’t even possible until the third try.
“Yes, there was a first and second liver prior to all the puzzle pieces fitting together, and various reasons on why they weren’t possible,” he said. “You tend to guard your heart more and more the further you dive into the transplant process.”
He said he is cognizant of the gift given his son, and the source that made it possible is unthinkable.
“In this case another family had to lose their child for ours to even have a shot. Let that settle in,” said Preston.
“A joyful moment for one family might be another’s worst nightmare. This sat heavy on Kendyll and I – an unfathomable gift and one we may never be able to return. Let me assure you, we are both organ donors in case we pass away.”
Preston expressed joy in how quickly Nash rebounded from the transplant surgery - becoming “the Nash we absolutely adore – so full of color, energy and opinion”.
It is Nash’s older brother Knox, who turns 4 on Jan. 30, who was joyful upon learning his brother was cancer-free and would be coming home. Unlike the prior eight months, they would be more able to play like they once did.
“The boys are back,” laughed their father. “The dynamic duo of Knox and Nash are in full swing – wrestling, Spidey cartoons, Playdoh, Jeep Powerwheel rides and all. Seeing Nash interact with Knox now makes us reflect on how truly sick and worn down he was the last eight months. They’re definitely making up for lost time.”
Though the family is moving back to a sense of normalcy, it will not be as it was before last April for some time.
“Nash will probably always be a medical baby,” said Kendyll McFarland. “We aren’t done. He will need scans every three months, MRI and CTs to assure no tumor growth. He also will have his heart checked with EKGs and echocardiograms.
“A lot of the medicines he was on can affect his heart and hearing. He needs weekly blood draws to check for liver rejection, and just to be sure everything in his body is happy and healthy.”
The boy’s hearing has been affected by chemotherapy medications, and he may require hearing aids, said his mother.
“Nothing is guaranteed and they have a whole list of possible side effects,” she admitted.
Both parents are effusive when talking about the Ahwatukee-based nonprofit Armer Foundation for Kids, a charity started by Jennifer and Matt Armer dedicated to ease some of the financial burdens to families with children with extreme medical conditions that have unforeseen financial burdens.
“Armer has been with us every. single. step,” wrote Preston in an email.”
‘“I got a call from Jennifer the day after Nash’s diagnosis and she’s been lifting our family up ever since. The resources they’ve provided our family, even outside of financial help, have been countless.
“Simply put, Jennifer and team are family. They are intentional, thoughtful, but also respectful of your journey,” he said. “The hardest part was accepting the help on the upfront – that’s me and a pride thing.”
Kendyll recalled the help provided when the family opted to try the liver donor list at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, and the Armer Foundation arranged the flight through the nonprofit Angel Flight West.
“I asked Jennifer what type of budget we had as I knew we’d need a rental car, a hotel, even help with food. She said, ‘This is yours to decide how to use. Your friends and your family have given this to you; we are just stewards of it.”
Her voice broke as she spoke, and tears fell, unbidden.
Armer Foundation for Kids, and the families they help, are listed on their website: ArmerFoundation.org.
The McFarland’s I Am Strong T-shirts were designed by The Armer Foundation and can be purchased on its website in several styles for men and women. To date, sales have exceeded their original goals.
“Don’t go into battle without your Armer,” Preston said.