As baby undergoes cancer treatment, family separated due to pandemic

Posted 6/4/20

Many Americans have been stuck at home this year, but for Matt and Shayla Walsh, that’s where they wish they could be.

“Being at home doesn’t seem like anything special for a …

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As baby undergoes cancer treatment, family separated due to pandemic


Many Americans have been stuck at home this year, but for Matt and Shayla Walsh, that’s where they wish they could be.

“Being at home doesn’t seem like anything special for a family without a sick kid,” Shayla said. “... but for us we would give anything to be able to just be at home all together.”

Life changed dramatically  for the young couple in December when they took their baby girl, Riverlyn, to her 2-month checkup: She was diagnosed with leukemia.

“... Our worlds got flipped upside down,” Matt wrote in a Facebook post at the time. “There are a lot of risks in the road ahead. However, we know that God is good and that God is a God of miracles.”

Their already difficult journey took an unexpected turn this spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and hospitals went on lockdown. Since March 25, their hospital has only allowed one person to be with a patient at a time, even for infants. For one hour each night, parents are allowed to switch out, but two parents cannot be in the hospital at the same time, Shayla said.

“Having an immunocompromised child during all of this is so scary and this pandemic has made our fight a million times harder,” she wrote in a Facebook post.

Not only are they separated, but many of the amenities for families have been shut down, such as laundry, the pantry, Ronald McDonald House, quiet room, cafeteria and more, Shayla said. Services for families and kids have also been limited, including physical therapy, support services and spiritual care.

But instead of seeing only struggles, Matt and Shayla also look for blessings and what they can learn. The most prevalent lesson: Not to take little things for granted.

“I have to be grateful for this cancer journey because I appreciate everything about my child and being a parent just that much more,” Shayla said.

She said Riverlyn, who is now nearly 8 months old, is “inspiring to everyone she meets” and greets hospital staff with a smile.

“Riverlyn is the happiest baby with such a fun personality,” Shayla said.


An unpredictable journey

Matt and Shayla (Harsh) first met more than a decade ago, when his dad became the pastor of the church Shayla’s family was attending in Powell. Matt graduated from Powell High School in 2015, and she graduated the following year. Both went on to Northwest College, graduating in 2018. They got married that summer.

The couple had been married for less than 18 months when they found out their new baby was fighting leukemia.

“When the doctor gave us the diagnosis, Matt didn’t lose it,” Shayla recalled. “He stood up, proclaimed the goodness and power of God over our daughter and held me in the hallway while I sobbed and prayed my baby wouldn’t be taken from me.”

Shayla said she’s “seen him walk through this valley with more grace than I could ever fathom.”

At the time of Riverlyn’s diagnosis, the family was living in Beulah, Wyoming, but they were connected in Spearfish, South Dakota, where they worked and went to the hospital.

Just before the diagnosis, the couple had accepted a job in Prescott, Arizona, and they’ve since moved there. Currently, Riverlyn is undergoing treatment at a hospital in the Phoenix-Mesa area.

“We just finished the third round of chemo on Thursday so she will be starting the fourth round this week,” Shayla said on Sunday.

Unfortunately, Riverlyn developed a blood infection a couple weeks ago, so they had to stay in the hospital much longer than they originally thought.

These rounds also include some very high-dose drugs and Riverlyn “has been extremely sick from it lately,” Shayla said.

“That has added to how hard it is to be apart from my husband and without help in this time,” she said.

Riverlyn’s treatment plan calls for five rounds of chemotherapy.

“We probably will not finish inpatient care until September or October now,” Shayla said. “We are starting to realize just how unpredictable this cancer journey will be.”

Once Riverlyn is done with inpatient treatment, the family will start the maintenance phase, which includes doing chemo at home for about another year, Shayla said.


Treading water

When people find out about the family’s situation, their initial response is often something like, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” Shayla said.

“Well, I can’t either,” she wrote in a recent post. “I’m in the middle of it and I can’t fathom what our life is right now.”

She compared it to treading water. At first, they imagined the worst possible scenario — drowning. 

“The initial shock of jumping into the frigid water is a feeling like none other,” Shayla wrote. “But after 30 seconds of treading (figuring out the plan and prognosis and completing a round) it doesn’t seem quite as bad, well, still bad but not as bad as we initially thought.”

She said there was confidence and the belief that they’ll make it and be strong through the whole process.

In recent weeks, though, they’re experiencing what it feels like after several minutes of treading water, Shayla wrote, and “drowning seems like a very real possibility” as they struggle and feel the ache.

But as they tread water, the Walshes have looked to a lifeguard: “The one who can walk on the same water that could so easily envelop you.”

The couple has relied on their faith, especially in their most difficult moments.

“I’ve seen God work in many ways, but I truly think He is using this time to bring us closer into relationship with Him,” Shayla wrote. “We have absolutely nothing else to rely on other than Him and we are daily being taught more about His character and His love for us.”

She said the best way people can help support Riverlyn and the family is through prayer.

“We know how much power there is in prayer,” Shayla said.

The family also has been assisted by many cancer organizations that are in need of donations, including Children’s Cancer Network, Amanda Hope and Ronald McDonald House.

A donation fund also has been set up through Wells Fargo (Riverlyn Walsh Donation Fund). A GoFundMe account can be found at

Both sets of Riverlyn’s grandparents live in Powell: Lisa and Doug Harsh and Mike and Becky Walsh.

“I would also love to just say a huge thank you to everyone who has been so supportive in Powell and the surrounding areas,” Shayla said. “We still feel the small town love even though we are no longer there and that’s amazing!”