By Mack Drake
Special to GCU News Bureau
Ian Youngblood shaved his head recently.
Where a full, healthy, flowing head of dirty brown hair once rested is a zipper-like scar running nearly ear to ear across the top of his scalp, a striking reminder of what just happened and the battles that lie ahead.
“It was about accepting the diagnoses,” Youngblood said. “It was about getting in the right mindset to fight this thing.”
The Grand Canyon University graduate was just weeks removed from learning he had Grade IV glioblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer without a known cure.
Youngblood, 29, was diagnosed toward the end of a three-month nursing mission in New York, where he helped fight COVID-19 at the heart of the pandemic. Even though he was working as a nurse in the Phoenix area, he dropped everything to assist a city that desperately needed extra help.
“I knew that if I was going to make a difference and help fight this invisible enemy here in Arizona, I needed to go to New York and gain the right knowledge,” the Seattle native said. “Nobody knew how to fight this virus, and cases were skyrocketing. New York hospitals were short on staff. I knew I needed to help.”
Youngblood volunteered his services through a staffing agency in March and was deployed a few days later. Although his mission originally was scheduled for three weeks, he spent more than 80 days in New York.
It was in June, toward the end of his deployment, that Youngblood began to feel the symptoms. It began with a throbbing headache one morning. Severe nausea and vomiting quickly followed.
Something wasn’t right.
“The people I was working with in New York basically dragged me to the emergency room,” Youngblood said. “Being a former football and rugby player, I tried to tough it out and act like I was fine. Obviously, I’m really glad they did what they did.”
After a number of tests and scans, doctors in the intensive unit at White Plains (N.Y.) Hospital diagnosed Youngblood with glioblastoma and operated the next day to remove the tumor from his right frontal lobe.
Only 25% of glioblastoma patients survive more than one year, and only 5% survive more than five years. The average survival time is 12-18 months.
“Having played sports most of my life, I’ve broken bones and I’ve busted my face up, but nothing can prepare you for something like this,” Youngblood said. “At 29 years old, nobody expects to get news like this. This is a form of cancer that may only allow you to live for another two years. That’s tough to hear when all you want to do is help others.”
Steady doses of radiation and chemotherapy are now in Youngblood’s future as he attempts to beat this new and unexpected enemy.
As he fights his battle, Youngblood is drawing strength from the same relentless mindset and work ethic that made him a star on the GCU men’s rugby team and earned him the nickname “Moose.” A former Eastern Washington University football commit, Youngblood transitioned to rugby on the fly and played for the Lopes from 2013 to 2016.
“He was the definition of fit,” former teammate Kyle Hammontree said. “He was always either in the gym or studying – even on our road trips. He would study for his exams until 1 a.m. before games. He’s one of the most determined and hard-working people I’ve ever met.”
Said assistant coach Adam Muszynski, “Ian was immediately a big contributor — on and off the field. He gained the respect of both players and coaches with his athleticism, positive attitude, intense work ethic and general caring for the program.”
After graduating with his Bachelor of Science in Nursing, Youngblood worked at various hospitals in the area before accepting a job as an allergy injection and triage nurse at the GCU Health and Wellness Clinic in 2018.
“He was super energetic,” said Connie Colbert, the clinic’s director. “He had his mind set on furthering his nursing career and being a nurse practitioner. He interacted very well with students. They all loved him. He brought tea for the staff and was always very considerate.
“We’re all praying for him. In the health care field, you spend a lot of time with each other. Everybody here enjoyed being around him.”
Now back in Phoenix, Youngblood is receiving treatment and maintaining a positive attitude. He’s living his life as normally as possible while continuing his studies to become a nurse practitioner. He’s also finding ways to stay active with help from his dog, Kinje.
“I’m truly honored to have the outpouring of support,” Youngblood said. “I wouldn’t be in the right place mentally or spiritually if it wasn’t for all the support I’ve received from my friends, family, teammates and community. The thoughts and prayers have been a huge help.
“I’ll be OK. I played rugby, and we like to hit. I’m going to fight this with everything I’ve got.”