A Unique Perspective
As a survivor of childhood cancer, Blazie Gilder has a unique perspective that she hopes will benefit children experiencing traumas like hospitalization. Gilder will graduate from the University of Idaho in May 2023 with a degree in human development and family studies, a step closer to her goal of becoming a child life specialist.
Growing up in Troy, Gilder was an active and healthy kid when she suddenly began experiencing intense pain in her back which eventually spread throughout her body.
“We were trying to find out what was wrong with me for a little over a year,” she said. “My family was so desperate to find answers we were going to the doctor every few months because the pain kept getting worse.”
At age 11 Gilder was diagnosed with stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and immediately began treatment at Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane, Washington. She spent a year in and out of the hospital for chemotherapy treatments and developed a strong relationship with the doctors, nurses and child life specialists assigned to her case.
Child life specialists work with children and their families to help them cope with the trauma of hospitalization, illness and disability. They help the child understand their illness or injury, the procedures being performed, and engage in play therapy and distraction techniques. They also provide support, guidance and information to parents, caregivers and siblings.
“They were the ones always checking in with me and making sure I was comfortable with what was happening,” she said. “They listened and advocated for what I wanted to do.”
Realizing Her Passion
Gilder’s experiences led her to pursue her own career in the medical field. She originally enrolled at U of I as a medical sciences student with the intent of becoming a physician. During the COVID-19 pandemic she began to rethink that decision.
“I realized after thinking about it for so long that it wasn’t truly what I wanted in the medical field,” she said. “I wanted to have a more direct impact on my patients, and I found that the best way for me to do that was to pursue a career in child life.”
Gilder contacted Trevor White, academic advisor in the Margaret Ritchie School of Family and Consumer Sciences, to learn more about degrees that could set her on the path to becoming a child life specialist. She knew she’d be working with children, but also their parents and siblings, so White recommended the degree in human development and family studies.
“I was so filled with anxiety about the decision to change my major,” she said. “I didn’t want to let anyone down. I knew in myself that I wasn’t changing my major because I wasn’t good enough to be a doctor, it was because it wasn’t what a wanted. After one Zoom call with Trevor, he reassured me that I was making the right decision if that’s what was best for me. And I haven’t turned back since.”
The support she received from her community while battling cancer inspired her to add a minor in human and community engagement, in addition to her pre-health studies minor.
“My community had such an amazing impact on me during that time and supported my family and I,” she said. “I wanted to see how I could connect my patients in the future with their community.”
Advocating for Patients
Although a master’s isn’t required to become a child life specialist, Gilder felt that furthering her education and gaining additional experiences was important. She has been accepted into the University of Georgia’s child life master’s program and will relocate to Athens, Georgia after graduation.
The master’s program provides coursework and practicum experiences in hospital settings that meet the Association for Child Life Professionals requirements for becoming a certified child life specialist. After completing the program Gilder will be qualified to sit for the child life certification exam.
“I looked at it from the perspective of, U of I has given me an amazing foundation to go into this field. But in order to be as prepared as I can to best meet the needs of my patients, I wanted to pursue further education and training to get more hours in hospitals and ensure that I’m hitting that coursework that is very specific for this career,” she said.
Gilder hopes to eventually return to the Palouse. To her knowledge there are no child life specialists in the area.
“I’d love to work in an area that is rural and underserved because that would have made all the difference to me growing up,” she said. “It’s sad for me to think about patients in this area who maybe can’t commute that far or don’t have issues serious enough to go to a children’s hospital, but they still need advocacy in this area.”
Gilder is excited for the next chapter in her story and the chance to impact children who may be experiencing similar situations to those she was once in.
“I am able to empathize with my patients in a way that a lot of other professionals in the field might not be able to,” she said. “It gives me a unique perspective on things. Maybe it will allow me to be a little more creative about the approaches I take.”
Article by Amy Calabretta, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences
Photos by Garrett Britton, University of Idaho Visual Productions
Published in May 2023