Mar. 13, 2017

Tacoma Doctoral Student Studies Lupus to Empower Others

Cobi Silver has an impressive list of academic accomplishments. First, she graduated with honors from Arizona State University.  Then she published an anxiety workbook for her master’s degree at the University of Washington. Now she's working on her doctorate of behavioral health. To make these achievements even more impressive, Cobi has lupus—an autoimmune disease that affects an estimated 1.5 million Americans.

In fact, her experiences with this disease are what inspired her to study mental health care.

“As many people with lupus know, it can cause a lot of anxiety and depression,” she said. “I’ve been in that place, and while anxiety is never completely under control, I feel like I’m in a better place now and can help others...”

While Cobi has not let lupus stop her from achieving her goals, it has impacted her academic pursuits. Cobi recalled how intense the Arizona sun could be while she was walking from class to class. About two-thirds of people with lupus also experience sensitivity to UV light. Exposure can cause rashes and flu-like symptoms.

“It was really difficult,” she said. “I wanted to be like everyone else, but just walking to class in the full sun would be super draining.”

Luckily, Arizona State had a few campuses around Phoenix, so Cobi was able to choose a smaller one. A smaller campus meant shorter walks between classes. She also moved into student housing and arranged her schedule so that she wouldn’t be outside during the sunniest parts of the day.

“Moving in on-campus was good for me because it forced me to socialize, so I couldn’t isolate myself,” she said. “It forced me to keep going.”

After Cobi finished her bachelor’s degree, she knew it was time for a change of scenery. She packed everything she owned into her car and drove to the cloudiest place she could—Washington State.

Shortly thereafter, Cobi started as a community social worker with a non-profit organization in Tacoma. She spent her days with some of the most at-risk youth in the area—helping them to stay in their homes and out of mental health hospitals or foster care. Cobi found her work rewarding, but she soon had the itch to return to school.

Cobi applied and was accepted into the University of Washington’s Master of Social Work program. Because of her high grades as an undergraduate, she was placed into an accelerated track for the program. While she had learned how to cope with lupus during college, starting a graduate program presented new challenges.
Her lupus flared shortly after she started classes, badly damaging her liver and pancreas.  She was even hospitalized for one week after two emergency surgeries.  While hospitalization would be difficult for anyone, Cobi was also new to the area and didn’t know many people.

“I became well enough to go back to work and school out of sheer determination…I had very little money at the time and had mounting medical bills,” Cobi said. “So I told myself that I have no option, but to get up and keep going. I felt terrible for a long time and probably shouldn’t have returned to work so soon, but I had no choice, but to be strong… no choice, but to keep going. My mind is super strong – it has to be.”

Cobi soon returned to full force, working up to 50 hours per week along with her full-time studies and an internship.

“I’m not trying to glamorize the experience,” she said. “There would be times when I had to lay on the couch for three days and call in sick. I was afraid of life passing me by, but knowing I could help others gave me a purpose and kept me going.”

To manage her demanding schedule, Cobi said she had to learn to be honest with her coworkers and classmates about how lupus affected her.

“Before, I had only wanted to show my strong face to other people,” she said. “But when I learned to be vulnerable and ask for help, the response was incredible. I learned that other people wanted to help me the same way I wanted to help them.”

Cobi finished her master’s degree by publishing a workbook for people with autoimmune-related anxiety and depression. However, her studies and work had exhausted her. She knew she needed a break before starting a doctoral program. She started a job with the Personal Health Partner’s program at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and has devoted her energy to helping patients who are in a mental health crisis. She also spent more time resting and rebuilding her energy.

After taking time for some much deserved rest, Cobi decided to pursue her final academic goal: a doctoral degree. Cobi had looked into some research based programs, but she wanted a program that allowed her to spend more time with patients. That’s when she found the Doctorate of Behavioral Health program at Arizona State University--her undergraduate alma mater. The program was a perfect fit, allowing her to spend most of her studies with a clinical focus and to complete courses remotely. This feature allowed her to continue her work with Mary Bridge and stay in the Pacific Northwest.

The program was also flexible enough to allow her to focus on a subject of personal interest to her: lupus. She is working to develop a program that can be integrated into a regular doctor’s visit to help youth with lupus manage the anxiety and depression that often comes with the condition. She also wants to empower these youth to achieve their goals.

She recommended that others in similar situations—trying to balance school and life with lupus—find an area of study to be passionate about.

“When you find something that you love, it feels more like you’re learning your hobby than just doing school work.”

The public can join Cobi in the fight against lupus by coming to or supporting one of the Lupus Foundation of America's upcoming events:

  • Lupus: Learning and Living--Join us for a free educational event. Learn the latest in lupus treatments and research from the experts as well as connect with others living with the disease.
  • The Great Unknown Challenge--An exhilarating, new fundraising event that will test your ability to conquer unknown challenges. These challenges will require the use of your brain, brawn and/or sense of adventure.
  • Walk to End Lupus Now--Experience firsthand the power of the movement to end lupus.

Be sure to follow the Lupus Foundation of America, Pacific Northwest Office on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for the latest news about events in the region.