Eight months later, the memories still feel very fresh for Cory Wharton.
Those 15 days he and girlfriend Taylor Selfridge spent in the Intensive Care Unit at Children's Hospital Los Angeles watching youngest daughter Maya, now 16 months, literally fight for her life were, unsurprisingly, "the lowest time of my life," The Challenge star shared in an exclusive interview with E! News.
Recovering from the first of what will be two open-heart surgeries required to treat the congenital heart condition she was diagnosed with before she was born, Maya struggled to breathe. "Her lungs would not open up," explained Wharton. "So her lung capacity was very low."
She was placed on a ventilator, which meant the tiny then-7-month-old also had to be sedated, he explained, "because they don't want them to do any quick movements or scratch up their throat."
So the 32-year-old spent nights simply watching his baby daughter, hoping for improvement. "I would stay up and pray that I would much rather be in that bed than her," he recalled through tears. "Like, I'll do anything. You see your kid scared, you're like, I would trade places with you in a heartbeat."
Even T.J. Lavin's most exhausting, sadistic of finals has got nothing on parenting a seriously ill child.
"Watching your kid sit there in a hospital bed," described Wharton, "was by far the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
And for the Teen Mom: The Next Chapter pair, the challenge began nearly two years ago.
Washington native Selfridge—who starred on season five of MTV's Are You the One? before connecting with Real World alum Wharton on the inaugural season of the network's Ex on the Beach—was 23 weeks along when doctors diagnosed their unborn baby girl with tricuspid atresia, meaning the tricuspid valve hadn't formed and blood couldn't easily flow to the lungs for oxygen.
"You go through waves hearing this type of information," Wharton described. "You're scared, you're nervous, you're anxious, your mind is just racing. We became Google doctors, we looked up everything we could. We reached out to other people that Taylor would feel comfortable talking to and we just tried to prepare."
And yet, he said, no amount of Internet scouring and peppering other parents with questions could have readied them to leave the hospital after Maya's June 2022 arrival empty-handed.
"I don't think anything can prepare you to physically see your kid in the NICU," said Wharton, noting that their 3-year-old daughter Mila's birth—at the height of COVID in April 2020—was fairly routine by comparison.
Throughout that initial 15-day stay in the NICU, newborn Maya "had to do three cath labs," explained Wharton, who also shares 6-year-old Ryder with fellow Challenge alum Cheyenne Floyd. "She goes under anesthesia and they have to go and measure her blood vessels and blood pressure. And they kind of take a picture of the heart and see what they're working with."
And while the parents were thrilled when their youngest was released to their Los Angeles-area home, they knew the even tougher road was still ahead.
"When you have surgery, you just want to be on a steady path to get out of the hospital," Wharton explained of the January open-heart procedure. "You just want to see progress, you don't want to take steps back."
Unfortunately, Maya's recovery was more of a two steps forward, three steps back situation. When doctors were forced to go back in the operating room to figure out why her oxygen levels were in the 70s—well below the ideal 96 to 99 percent range—they couldn't find anything wrong, which was equal parts encouraging and frustrating. Quite simply, said Wharton, "Maya's body just wasn't responding well."
For three extra days, she remained on a ventilator as her parents stayed by her side. "That whole process was very scary," recalled Wharton. "Having to keep her sedated, but she would wake up, it was just miserable."
A horrific, worst-nightmare situation for any parent, and yet not without hope, Wharton resolutely refusing to let his mind entertain worst-case scenarios. "Taylor will go there," said Wharton. "But I always stayed optimistic. And I knew that little girl would be fine. Listen, we are some fighters. We are warriors. And she did it."
These days, he said, his youngest is "taking flights without oxygen, her coloring's getting better, she's living her best life."
And while a second open-heart surgery looms ahead in a few years once Maya reaches 35 pounds—"That's a big one," noted Wharton, "it's scarier than the first"—for now he and Selfridge are doing their best to live in the moment.
Because while Maya continues to get positive progress reports ("She looks good, heart rate's doing good"), Mom and Dad are still very much in recovery. "I definitely have a lot of trauma from it," allowed Wharton of the experience. "So does Taylor."
Their entire tribe enveloped them in the moment, he acknowledged, with Selfridge's parents caring for Mila, Floyd holding things down for Ryder and Wharton's mom flying in from Michigan just to make sure that everyone was remembering to eat.
"My family did step up and so did hers," said Wharton. "We had some help from Cheyenne's family—everyone stepped up." But all the homemade casserole dishes in the world and reminders to please get some sleep can only do so much to ease the burden of worry. "Me and Taylor took a lot of the trauma from that experience," noted Wharton. "And it's still heavy."
Therapy has helped. "You really have to just be open with your feelings and talk to people, get an outside perspective," he explained. "And I think time heals all wounds." So while he knows that Selfridge, 29, is still going to stress about every fever, seeing Maya "smile and just watching her progress through her checkups, it brings a sense of peace."
Which is why Wharton sees this as a what-doesn't-kill-you-makes-you-stronger situation, remaining appreciative that the experience taught him his relationship with Selfridge is comprised of high-grade steel.
"It brought us together," he said of all those nights spent sleeping on a windowsill (him) and floor (her) inside Maya's ICU room. "And now we're to the point of dealing with some of that trauma and talking about it so we can move past it."
He's eager to usher in their more playful era. "When you go through that, you kind of go in this protective mode," he described of pouring every ounce of their attention into Maya. "And it's like, okay, well, let's now rediscover some fun in our relationship. Let's rediscover that spark that brought us together."
Their relationship has admittedly felt quite heavy since Maya's 2022 arrival, "and now that she's almost a year-and-a-half," he said, "it's like, things are looking in the right direction with her. We can focus elsewhere."
In the short-term, that means enjoying the holidays as a family in Chicago and leaning into his life as a girl dad. Modeling himself after Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Johnson and other proud fathers of daughters, he said, Wharton is down to set up the Barbie Dreamhouse and seek out the perfect dance studio for his budding entertainer.
"Whatever these little girls want to do, I'm going to be there," he explained. "Ryder hit me with a line that I will always remember. She said, 'Daddy, I don't want to play sports. I want to sing and dance.' I called up a dance studio. We called up some singing lessons. Did it hurt my soul? Yes, it did. But I just support those girls and everything that they do."
And in the not-so-distant future, there's plans to get back to building that football team of Wharton's dreams.
"I found something that I love and something that I'm good at and that's being a dad and just loving on my little girls," he said. And while he was hoping to add another daughter to the bunch with Maya because "I have all the girl toys, I have all the girl clothes," as he put it, "the next one, I want a boy."
Also on the wish list: Growing old with Selfridge. "We just bought a house," he shared, before bringing up that, yes, he's aware that people want to know when they're getting married. "It's definitely being talked about. We have everything but the ring and me just letting her know. Taylor deserves that and it's something that I want and she wants. Right now we're just taking steps to get there."
The ultimate destination: reality TV infamy. "You guys know I love the camera," he said. "I do want to have my own show about my girls, like, their own Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Keeping Up With the Whartons."
And should they run into any snags, Wharton feels confident they can muscle their way through them.
"For me, it's just like. if we did the open-heart surgery, we could do anything," he shared of his viewpoint after getting through the "for worse" portion of their parenting journey. "I look at it as, we can't be stopped."