At Your Side During Tough Times

August 28, 2019

Memorial Staff

Samantha Utter and friends. Sam is a Child Life Specialist and Coordinator of the Love Jen Cancer Fund.

Samantha Utter, Child Life Specialist at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital and Coordinator of the Love Jen Cancer Fund, remembers meeting Lotsy Dotsy during her interview with Memorial 10 years ago. The hospital's resident clown left an impression on Samantha, as did the rest of the staff that day. Everyone was welcoming, joyful and dedicated to making kids feel better.

“I’ve loved it here ever since,” says Pennsylvania-born Samantha.

As a pediatric healthcare professional, Samantha provides psychosocial support to children and families during hospitalization. Her work, she says, is incredibly gratifying.

“I get to help patients, siblings and parents cope with life’s most challenging events. It can be such a vulnerable time for a family to be inside a hospital with a sick child. That’s where my role comes into play. I’m here as a patient advocate, helping promote effective coping through play, education and self-expression activities throughout a child’s medical treatment,” Samantha says.

Becoming a child life specialist requires additional certifications and studies. During her undergraduate years, Samantha found herself driving hours each week to volunteer at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She followed up with a three-month-long internship at Shriner’s Hospital in Erie, Pennsylvania. Samantha has a B.S. degree in child development and a master’s degree in early childhood education. She went on to sit for the Child Life Professional Certification Exam, which she accomplished during her first year of working for Memorial.

Samantha served as the inpatient oncology child life specialist for seven years before crossing the street in May 2016 to be the coordinator for the Love Jen Cancer Fund. Drs. Nick and Wendy Masi started the foundation in 1990 to continue their late daughter’s legacy (Jennifer died from neuroblastoma at age 14) and help families cope with the financial and emotional stresses of living with cancer. While still providing emotional support, Samantha now also helps families manage financial hardship resulting from medical expenses.

“I work very closely with Social Work to help guide me with that. I love this new aspect of my role now. Having a child go through cancer creates such a financial and emotional hardship on a family. I’m so glad we have resources, like the Love Jen Fund, to help our families in such a time of need,” she says.

It’s important to note how unique her position is. She works directly with patients and families, but also engages with community members for the many special events and resources that are provided to families, like Boggy Creek Camp, Make-A-Wish and A Prom to Remember, to name a few.

“It’s amazing how different my role is now compared to when I was inside the hospital. When I was in the hospital, I would only see the kids when they were sick. Here in the clinic, I get to see patients that I haven’t seen in years, and they’re living their life cancer free. They are graduating from school and getting married. It’s so wonderful to see them in this different light,” she says.

Samantha is also the hospital's Love Jen Bereavement Coordinator who organizes the annual Butterfly Ceremony to honor patients who have passed away. She also ensures that the hospital has all the supplies and tools to provide bereavement support to families.

“It’s a constant balance. The good days definitely outweigh the bad ones.  Because you build such strong relationships with these patients and families, it can be tough to emotionally juggle everything,” says Samantha, mom to a son, 5 and daughter, 1.

She adds, “Though I’m in an outpatient setting, I love that I can cross the street and be there for patients and families providing whatever support they need. They’ve let me into their lives and I’m so grateful for that. They’ve given me a different perspective on how I live my life and the things I value. That has been something huge that these families have gifted me that I didn’t realize when I started.”