GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The parents of a baby girl in West Michigan say the large baby formula recall earlier this year may have saved her life.

Fifteen-month-old Mariah Pearl is Jared and Mary Ritsema’s rainbow baby. Mary has a 26-year-old son, but when she and Jared married, they wanted to have a child together. After a miscarriage, they had given up on the idea. Then they found on Mariah was on the way. The moment she arrived, she was calling the shots:

“She grabbed my finger and the nurses said, ‘I think you’re coming with us, Dad!’ So they set her in (the warmer) and she held my finger the whole time,” Jared Ritsema recalled.

She’s had both parents wrapped around that finger ever since.

The formula recall six months after she was born marked the beginning of major life changes for the family. The Ritsemas noticed Mariah seemed lethargic and sick but visits to the pediatrician didn’t give them any answers, so they ended up in the emergency room.

“Our friend sent me a text and said, ‘Your formula’s been recalled’ and I said, ‘What?'” Mary Ritsema said.

Mary Ritsema called the recall “a blessing in disguise.” It was the formula that pushed them to the ER, but once there, they got another diagnosis: An ultrasound revealed a cancerous tumor — stage 4 neuroblastoma. Initially, tests showed it was the lower-risk type but researchers tested a sample again and confirmed it was positive for the marker that indicates a high-risk type of neuroblastoma.

“It’s more aggressive. It’ll come back if you don’t go through the extensive treatments,” Mary Ritsema explained.

That also changed the treatment plan from about six months to about two years.

Life in the hospital is not restful. Mariah has been there for long stretches for her chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants and when there have been complications.

“Six different pumps with medications going off every hour, or every half-hour there’s beeping,” Jared Ritsema said.

The treatment also revealed another problem, the result of complications from Mariah’s birth. Doctors used forceps during the delivery, which led to fluid on her brain. She had an emergency brain surgery while going through cancer treatment.

“They cauterized the main artery off in the brain. She’s the second kid to ever have this surgery done at Helen DeVos (Children’s Hospital),” Jared Ritsema said.

Watching Mariah fight has been the hardest part for her family.

“Jared has handled a lot of the hard stuff that I can’t handle. Seeing your daughter get sedated and she’s 6 months old is heart-wrenching,” Mary Ritsema said.

Other pressures at home have also been a challenge. Jared Ritsema said he lost his job with a trucking company as a result of his daughter’s cancer. He has dedicated every minute since to Mariah. He said he watches her blood counts when she’s sleeping and does the math.

“I try to figure out when she’s going to need her next transfusion,” he said.

“He’s taught himself everything about this diagnoses,” his wife said. “They almost recruited him to be a nurse there.”

Mariah Ritsema in the hospital undergoing cancer treatment. (Courtesy)
Mariah Ritsema in the hospital. (Courtesy)

The Ritsemas marvel at Mariah’s demeanor, especially at the hospital, and have a theory about why she seems so happy even during treatment:

“We’re all here together and we’re in a room and it just makes her happy for all of us to be together and spending time together,” Mary Ritsema said.

That’s something they would like to keep up long after her treatment is over.

“After having the opportunity to take care of Mariah and be home, I’m not going to go on the road for two to four nights (a week). There’s so much to be thankful for right here,” Jared Ritsema said.

Friends of the family have set up a GoFundMe account to help cover the expenses of treatment and other costs after Jared Ritsema lost his job.