Easing the 'ouch'
By Marion Blackburn
Her classroom has no walls, but Cecelia Valrie ’99 teaches every day. Whether working with doctors at the medical school on programs for chronically ill children or helping her students grasp the complexities of kids’ pain, she’s doing all she can to educate others about making life better for sick children and their families.
By profession she’s a developmental health psychologist, but her expansive knowledge and restless curiosity have taken her far beyond her field’s traditional boundaries. Her goal is enabling children with lifelong, painful illnesses like sickle cell anemia to have more normal lives. She’s researching the special psychology that affects them, and sharing that information with their doctors, families and teachers.
As the recipient of a $600,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, she’s creating a novel research program using cutting-edge technology like smart phones, iPods and even wristwatch computers. Using these gee-whiz tools, she’ll collect information from kids about what makes them feel better. She’ll combine that with what she knows about developmental psychology—the science of how we mature emotionally and intellectually—to craft approaches that allow children to grow and thrive despite long-term pain or medical conditions.
“Sick children experience acute pain, and have to undergo intensive medical procedures,” Valrie, 32, says. “They miss school, and have physical and psychological complications because of their illnesses. If they’re going to lead good lives, they need people who understand these stressors and who can assist them in the process.”
After graduating from ECU summa cum laude with a dual degree in psychology and math, she received master’s (’04) and doctorate (’06) degrees from UNC Chapel Hill in developmental psychology. She joined ECU’s psychology department in 2006.
In addition to her research and work with kids and professionals, Valrie teaches psychology at all levels and supervises doctoral students as part of the university’s new Ph.D. in health psychology. This program, one of very few in the nation, examines the emerging field of how we think about health—and how that affects our physical condition. It also explores the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness, as well as factors that affect both mental and physical well-being. The doctorate has tracks in clinical health psychology and pediatric school psychology. It enrolled its first students in 2007 and today has about 30 enrolled.
Kathleen Row, chair of the department of psychology, applauds her colleague’s work in this emerging field. “She was here as an undergraduate, and we’re thrilled to have her back as a faculty member,” Row says. “She’s an excellent teacher and outstanding researcher—just an all-around academic citizen, who’s willing to pitch in with what needs to be done.”
Sickle cell research
Normal red blood cells
Sickle cell disease is Valrie’s research focus and although not a physician, she has learned a great deal about the disease and its effects on children. It’s an unplumbed area of study; previously, people with sickle cell disease didn’t always reach adulthood, especially with serious forms of the disease.
These days, medical advances mean people with sickle cell disease often have a life expectancy to the 60s and beyond. So it’s important for them to have healthy development along the way, even as they deal with the hardships of their disease. Sickle cell disease in this country mostly affects African-Americans. The trait creates sickle-shaped red blood cells that cannot pass through vessels properly and become clogged, leading to pain and tissue death. Pain can begin as early as 6 months old, with childhood strokes a possible complication.
While it’s hard on children, it’s also tough for parents. “Parents are under quite a bit of stress when they have a chronically ill child,” Valrie says. By showing parents how to work with their children on specific goals despite the discomforts of illness, they can usher their kids forward developmentally. Strong families, she says, raise strong, happy children.
“We want to make sure families don’t feel they’re all alone,” she says. “We want to give them, and their children, a sense of hope, that that they can plan for adulthood while they also understand the struggles of their disease.”
She’s interested in evaluating all types of pain management methods and sleep disorders in children, since pain disrupts a child’s nighttime rest, compounding the effects of the illness. These facets of health are critical for psychologists, parents, teachers and doctors: sooner or later, health problems take a toll on a child’s ability to learn and grow. Equipped with a better understanding, adults can stand by children as they grapple with their health problems.
Her interest in childhood development takes her into other research areas, including blood diseases (hematology), obesity and chronic pain. Charles W. Daeschner II, division chief for pediatric hematology-oncology at the Brody School of Medicine, is a mentor on her NIH grant.
“I’ve known Dr. Valrie since she was a student at Chapel Hill,” he says. “I was very pleased when we could recruit her as faculty. She has a strong interest in children with chronic illnesses, and has brought a new depth to our comprehensive sickle cell clinic. We’re hoping to find some things that will show us how to better work with our kids. Because living with a chronic disease is very emotionally stressful.”
Teacher and mentor
In addition to working with doctors, nurses and other psychologists, Valrie also teaches life-span development—how people develop over the course of their lifetime—to psychology majors, nurses and teachers, along with the history of psychology.
She works closely with doctoral students in research and scholarship. Kristen Alston, 23, a clinical health psychology doctorate student, shares Valrie’s interest in sickle cell disease. Growing up with a close family member who had a chronic disease gave her a personal interest in these illnesses.
“Sickle cell disease is the most commonly inherited blood disorder, but people with it have the least access to comprehensive care,” Alston says. “I think that’s unacceptable.”
She wants to change that. “It used to be that no one looked at how this disease would affect a person mentally and psychologically,” she says. “Now we’re looking at that a lot more.”
While it’s a new field, she believes her mentor is having a vital role in research. In addition, Valrie is her biggest cheerleader. “I can truly call her a mentor,” she says. “As a first-year student, you can get in over your head. But I can count on her to help me realize what’s feasible, and how to take things step by step—and stay on track.”
Valrie parcels her time among many roles—conducting research and supervising graduate students, delivering lectures and educational presentations, collaborating with providers at the medical school to develop programs, and working with the kids she enjoys so much.
What’s really exciting these days is the technology available for research and the promise it holds to allow professionals to better understand what works for kids—and what doesn’t. She’s making good-use gadgets like smart phones to record children’s pain levels. “This technology will completely change the way we do research.”
When she’s not at work, she enjoys movies, especially the independent kind. “I like to escape into a good story,” she says, noting that comedies are always a good choice. “I love to laugh.”