When the Mid-Rivers Cancer Center in Montross shut its doors in 2014, the lives of many area patients seemed to stand still as they faced worrisome questions in the midst of already chaotic circumstances.
The center, owned and operated by Dr. Christopher S. Walsh since 2005, was deemed a safe haven to many of its patients; a place of refuge from a disease that claims so much time, energy and joy. No one could deny its necessity and impact in the quaint community of Montross oreven within the borders of the Northern Neck, simply because of its quality care and its easily-accessible location.
Walsh closed Mid-Rivers following a fall that left his back gravely injured. He continued the practice for 18 months after his injury, but soon decided to donate the center to Mary Washington Regional Healthcare (MWHC) in February that year. Patients were then struck with the realization that they would again have to trek between Fredericksburg and Richmond to continue radiation treatment.
However, even upon its closing, it appeared the center had its very own guardian angel watching over it.
During his time as the lone-practitioner of Mid-Rivers, Walsh treated hundreds of patients and, according to members of his former staff, did everything “the old-fashioned way.” He appreciated those that paid attention to detail when it came to the treatment of his patients.
“He was a genius,” the now re-named MWHC Regional Cancer Center’s Administrative Assistant Christal Byrd said. “He loved his patients and his patients loved him. He was always searching for theories and praying for a cure.”
Byrd, whose father was a patient of Walsh’s, used to work in Maryland before her father’s cancer diagnosis. She quit her job to tend to his needs and accompanied him on his visits to the center each week. “I wanted to be at every appointment,” Byrd said. “I kept everything organized from [my father’s] appointments and charts to his medications. I had it all written down and accounted for. And one day, Dr. Walsh forgot a note, and I remember shouting ‘I got it! I got it, Dr. Walsh!’ And he said, ‘Wow! I need you to come work for me.’ We laughed it off, just making a joke of it, but a week or two later, his assistant called me to offer me a job.”
Byrd worked for Walsh for three and half years prior to his sudden illness. Byrd described the passion Walsh sparked in her to learn and teach others about cancer diagnoses, treatments and recovery, a passion she still carries with her to this day.
“The center has always just touched a lot of people,” Byrd said. “I’ve lost so many people in my family to cancer and it made me want to learn so much more about the different symptoms and really help people understand that every cancer is different and everyone goes through it differently. It also gave me the opportunity to connect with a lot of people—I mean I grew up here in Montross, this is my home and I know almost everyone—but you become so much closer to people here and you really have to when someone is going through such an intimate process.”
Byrd recalled the sadness she felt when the center closed that year, but despite much disappointment, she held onto a sliver of hope that Walsh instilled in her before shutting the doors.
“It closed in February and I actually stayed here by myself until December,” Byrd said. “I would open up every day just to be here in case a patient or physician called for records or anything like that. (Walsh) finally told me he was going to close it and donate it to MWHC, and he said ‘It’s where it started, I know they’ll take good care of it, but I’ve asked that if they ever reopen it that they hire you.’”
Byrd said for two years, she turned down full-time job opportunities in hopes that the center wouldreopen in Montross, including positions with MWHC in Fredericksburg. When that hope wavered for many, Byrd and her sister sought divine-intervention.
“I just couldn’t leave here,” Byrd said through tear-filled eyes. “I kept saying, ‘God, you’re going to have to provide.’ After the first year of the center’s closing, my sister and I would drive past it, and she would say, ‘Sis,sis! Nobody’s there! Let’s go pray on the ground! One day she even said, ‘Lets walk around the building seven times (reflecting the biblical story of Joshua and the Battle of Jericho)’ and I would say ‘Sis, it’s hot out here,’ and she would say, ‘Do you want it or not?’ And we did it, we held hands and walked seven times around the center probably about four or five times over the year.”
Shortly after that, in 2015, Byrd said she received a surprising phone call.
“When Renee called me, I hung up on her and started crying,” Byrd said. “I was shouting, ‘I hope she calls me back’ and she did! And all I could think was ‘God never fails.’”
MWHC Regional Cancer Center at Montross’ Director Renee Shank said, laughing, “Never underestimate the drive of an admin assistant.”