The Churches had mixed emotions when their first child, Cyrus, was born last year.
During Toniann Churches’ pregnancy, they threw a gender reveal party. The family has a lot of girls, so they were excited to find out they were having a boy. Still, it was something new, and the Astoria couple’s imagination ran wild whenever they held their newborn son.
“You start to re-evaluate your future, get a little excited and a little nervous,” Chad Churches said. “You just start to dream. It, like, reignites your imagination, like, what are they going to be like when they grow up?”
That dream took a frightening turn about four months later when Cyrus was diagnosed with leukemia, prompting months of rigorous treatment and unusual living arrangements. For six energy-draining months, the new parents relied on the inspiration offered by their son, as well as some help from their Coast Guard peers.
‘Hoping it was wrong’
As the Churches held their baby son, they noticed something different. He had a low-grade fever for more than a week, his stomach was pale and he was crying more than usual.
“Even when you held him and stuff, he would just sit there and be really uncomfortable,” Chad Churches said.
The Churches took Cyrus in for a blood test. They imagined a number of scenarios, but the true cause of their son’s pain shocked them.
“I was kind of upset just because I was hoping it was wrong,” Toniann Churches said. “Other people’s kids get leukemia. Not yours.”
Cyrus and his parents spent most of the next six months at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland. Stuck in a new environment as the disease progressed, the first month was the hardest, Chad Churches recalls.
“It was just constantly finding out worse information as it progressed,” he said.
As Cyrus struggled to sleep while repeatedly vomiting, his parents took turns resting near him. While one parent salvaged as much sleep as possible at the hospital, the other would find another place in town to sleep with a more comfortable bed, less noise and fewer lights.
On good days, Cyrus had a unique ability to boost the morale of other patients, his parents said. When other patients were having difficult days, nurses would carry him into their rooms to lighten the mood. When nurses and his parents interacted with him in the hallway, patients who otherwise spent most of the day in bed came out of their rooms to watch.
“We learned so much from Cyrus at the hospital,” Toniann Churches said. “Cyrus brought so much joy to that floor.”
Friends and family
In their downtime, the Churches pursued a number of activities, such as fitness and music at the hospital.
“We just tried to get into a routine, something we could focus on,” Chad Churches said.
In those efforts, friends and family were crucial.
Chad Churches is an electrician’s mate at Coast Guard Air Station Astoria. Chief Petty Officer Lauren Walton, who also works at the air station, had recently begun revitalizing the local branch of the Coast Guard’s Chief Petty Officers Association, a nonprofit that helps service members through fundraising, community service, legislative advocacy and scholarships.
“It was our top priority to help that family,” Walton said, acknowledging they could only offer the family slight relief. “It was tough because they just wanted their son to be better.”
Fundraising efforts netted them about $1,000 for the Churches family. To make the family’s long stretches in Portland easier, they donated items such as yoga passes and gift cards for coffee and food.
“They made it so that we could find times for ourselves to just relax,” Toniann Churches said. “They made it so that we didn’t have to worry about taking care of ourselves.”
When Cyrus’ treatment was finished and the disease was in remission, his parents experienced a familiar pair of emotions. They were excited, and they were nervous.
While relieved that their son was no longer suffering, the absence of regular chemotherapy leaves more room for uncertainty if the disease returns and starts to spread again.
“It feels like the safety net gets pulled,” Toniann Churches said.
The Churches returned home for good about four months ago. After spending a seemingly endless amount of time at the hospital, the family is still adjusting to life inside their own home again. Cyrus is still in remission, and Toniann recently gave birth to a daughter, Nova.
The local Coast Guard organization that helped them also continues to grow. After raising $4,000 in 2016, the branch has raised $32,000 this year. Most of this year’s funds came earlier this month from the annual Heroes of the Sea Salmon Derby, a one-day competition during the Buoy 10 fishery.
“That’s my dream, that it keeps going and going,” said Walton, who accepted the derby’s first philanthropic leadership award at this year’s event. “Because the more it keeps going, the more it helps.”
With Cyrus’ treatment behind him, the Churches have more time to think about what their son will be like later in life. When they talk to their son about the experience, they will share the lessons the Coast Guard, and Cyrus himself, taught about giving.
“I think we’ll talk about, in the future, how love really does heal,” Toniann Churches said.