(Left) Sanford Children's Castle of Care. (Right) Anthony Pizer, Jessica Aguilar and their children, James and Elyse.

Child Life: ‘Our partner at every step’

November 26, 2018

This fall, Jessica Aguilar and Anthony Pizer waved to their 5-year-old, James, as he ventured off to the first day of kindergarten.

It meant everything to see him join his friends, beaming with excitement. For Jessica and Anthony, the day was more than another milestone in James’s childhood — it was confirmation that, after months of battling cancer, James had triumphed in every way.

They credit the medical team at Sanford Children’s with saving his life but say it was the Child Life Specialists who saved his spirit.

“They helped make sure he would come out of the experience a stronger kid, and still a kid,” Jessica said.


A parent’s worst fears

It was a Friday afternoon when Jessica and Anthony received the call from James’s doctor. After a recent biopsy of a mysterious lump on James’s neck, he had results that confirmed everyone’s worst fears: James had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Their minds reeled with a million fears and uncertainties; among the most pressing was how to tell James and his little sister, Elyse.

“We were just processing the news ourselves,” Anthony recalled. “We had just hit the floor, and now we’re supposed to communicate this in a way that’s understandable to a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old.”

Immediately, their next call was to Sanford Children’s Child Life team.

As the senior executive director of Women’s, Children’s and Cancer at Sanford, Jessica knew Child Life was a resource to kids and their families. Its team of child development experts helps navigate the emotional and psychological challenges of a serious illness or injury. But she never imagined Child Life would play a central role in her own life.

“It was Friday afternoon at 4:30 p.m. and the Specialist is walking us through like, ‘Okay, here’s what you can do, and these are the things you’re going to experience emotionally,” Anthony said. “They became our partner at every step.”


Into the unknown

After a long weekend together, the family walked through the doors of the Sanford Children’s Castle of Care on Monday, not knowing what lay ahead.

From the beginning, a major concern weighing on Jessica and Anthony was the long-term impact the experience might have. They’d caught James’s cancer early, but he’d still be in and out of the hospital, undergoing chemotherapy and all the things a child shouldn’t have to face.

“We wanted this to be a badge of honor for James, not something he feels the victim of,” Anthony said. “We feel blessed because Child Life immediately keyed into that. They said, ‘Yes, you’re right, and here’s what we’re going to do.’”

At every appointment, a Specialist was there to make James smile and translate what was happening into words he could understand. They helped distract him from needle pokes and painful procedures by telling stories and bringing iPads so he could play his favorite Super Mario video game.

“They were so good at keeping him distracted and keeping it as fun as it could be,” Anthony said. “He actually looked forward to days at the Castle. He wouldn’t want to go home!”

At the time, James was in kindergarten prep, and the Child Life team even connected with his teachers there. They sent books to help his classmates understand why their friend was missing.

“They were there for James, they were there for us, but they also extended their support to the community and made sure everyone had the tools to support James,” Jessica said.

“It felt like they were everywhere,” Anthony added. “It was really amazing.”


A gift of gratitude

After three intense months, the family celebrated James’s last day of treatment earlier this summer.

Jessica and Anthony knew exactly how they wanted to commemorate and show their gratitude to the Child Life team. They reached out to the Sanford Health Foundation to make a $10,000 gift to Child Life, while also securing a matching gift through Thrivent Financial, Anthony’s workplace.

“When most people think about a children’s hospital, they think of doctors and nurses and equipment,” Jessica said. “You don’t necessarily think about Child Life. But to me, it’s not an extra. Child Life is integral to providing care to children. We wanted to support that. I hope there’s never a question about whether Child Life should exist.”

The Aguilar-Pizer Family Child Life Fund will provide critical support to a program that’s offered at no additional cost to families at Sanford and relies heavily on donor generosity.

“We’ve been incredibly blessed by Sanford and wanted to repay that in a meaningful way,” Anthony said.

Today, Anthony and Jessica are still marveling at their son’s resilience. There’s nothing better than coming home to hear him rave about his day at school.

“We’ve had really low lows this past year. But seeing him start kindergarten and adapt so well … it’s amazing,” Jessica said.

She added that they’ve gained a new regard for the Castle after experiencing how everything, right down to the whimsical artwork and design details contributed to the healing process.

“It’s not as scary to say you’re going to the Castle versus going to the hospital,” she said. “It was a magical place for James. I’m a true believer.”


Does your company offer a matching gift program?

Like Thrivent Financial, many companies encourage employees to donate to their favorite charities by matching their contributions, sometimes dollar-for-dollar or more.

Contact your employer’s HR department to see if there’s an opportunity to double your next gift to Sanford Health.


Thrivent Choice® makes a meaningful impact

If you’re an eligible Thrivent Financial member and have Choice Dollars® available to direct, please keep the Sanford Health Foundation in mind. Visit thrivent.com/thriventchoice to learn more.