"I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy," Dempster said Sunday, sitting in the dugout at Great American Ball Park. "The story isn't 'Ryan Dempster's kid,' it's kids in general. She's spent her whole life in an [incubator]. The only outside she's seen is going from one hospital to an ambulance to an airplane to another ambulance to another hospital."
Doctors discovered the problem after an ultrasound of Dempster's wife, Jenny, showed she was retaining a lot of amniotic fluid. They noticed the baby had a lot of fluid in its belly.
Fortunately, one of the doctors in Arizona was well-versed on DiGeorge Syndrome and recognized the symptoms.
"There are 186 things that happen," Dempster said. "Her biggest thing is she has a tough time swallowing. She can swallow, but she doesn't always tell herself to do it often enough, or she just doesn't do it."
Riley was born prematurely, and has been monitored 24 hours a day. She eventually needed a tracheotomy tube in her throat to help feed her. She also had another operation that required Dempster to donate blood. DiGeorge Syndrome often is undiagnosed or misdiagnosed in infants for lack of a genetic test, and the Dempsters hope to create a foundation to raise awareness.
"There are a lot of kids who end up being diagnosed when they're 2 [years old]," he said. "For Riley, us knowing early, we've been able to start the ball rolling and work on things. Instead of waiting a year to find out, we can work on those things right now, so when she gets stronger, she can be a normal healthy child."
The goal now is to get Riley home. It's matters like this, personal matters, that make baseball seem insignificant.
"I try to stay as focused as I can out there," Dempster said. "Early in the year, when [his family] was in Arizona, April was tough. I couldn't even see her."
He struggled to get through April, going 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in five starts. In May, after Riley had been transported to a Chicago hospital, he was 3-2 with a 3.76 ERA in six games.
"At least with her in Chicago, every day I can go to the hospital, and I can see her and hold her and hang out with her and cuddle with her and play with her," he said. "I try not to bring it to the field or even at home, because I want to stay as positive as possible."
When the Cubs are home, Dempster has a busy day. He helps get son Brady off to school, then he stops by the hospital to play with Riley, then he gets his work in at Wrigley Field, stays for the game, goes home for dinner with Brady, then back to the hospital. Jenny has tried to keep things as normal as possible on days Dempster pitches, as well as researching everything she can find on DiGeorge Syndrome to get the best possible care.
Dempster thinks about Riley's predicament when he's on his morning runs or working out. His emotions boiled over May 25 after an outing against the Pirates. He struggled with his command over four innings and gave up seven hits and three walks, including back-to-back walks in the third with the bases loaded.
He took his anger out on the drink dispenser in the dugout, punching it with his left hand after the inning.
"I found that when things were going wrong on the field, that's when it came out," he said. "Things would start going [wrong] in an inning, and the anger would come out and frustration would come out, and I'd punch a Gatorade [machine].
"I became very frustrated," he said. "I was angry I couldn't be with her and angry because it was tough on my wife to sit there and be by herself. Having [Riley] home will be huge. It's huge for our son. He doesn't want to be around an [incubator] in a hospital. It's definitely been tough and it's almost sometimes where the baseball field is your safe haven and you can get away from it for a little while."
Dempster said he kept the matter private, because he didn't want it to be a distraction, and that he wanted more answers.
If he has a bad start, it's not because of what's going on at home.
"If I have a bad start, it's because I didn't execute pitches," he said. "Plus, there are other people who go through their own personal stuff. Maybe it's not in the public eye but for them it is [big]. For me, I've had tremendous support from my teammates and people in the front office and [Cubs manager] Lou [Piniella] and [pitching coach] Larry [Rothschild] to be able to stay back an extra day."
He has cried a lot. It's hard not to.
"I hold her, and I have a fully healthy, normal baby, so I've seen what normal is, and I feel for Riley," Dempster said. "I think what a strong woman it's going to make her. Nobody's going to be able to tell her she can't do something. If she can get through all this, she can get through everything."