May 15, 2020

Mentor and mentee share deeper understanding of what it means to be a caregiver

Cancer survivors Matt Frank, BN’13, and nursing student Tobin Haas find similarities in their treatment and approach to life
Matt Frank and Tobin Haas, UCalgary Nursing
Matt Frank and Tobin Haas

When Matt Frank was told at 20 years old that he had brain cancer, he felt isolated. Where do you go from there, as a young man and an athlete? How does a cancer diagnosis affect your outlook? For Matt, it altered his path and taught him a lot about compassion.

“You know, I think I was a very self-centred sort of a kid,” he says. “I didn’t have this more expansive idea of compassion and what I wanted that to look like until I got sick and met some of these cool nurses around me.”

A kinesiology student at the time of his diagnosis, Matt diverted and set out to become a nurse himself. He now works as a palliative care RN in a Calgary hospice. So when nursing student Tobin Haas expressed an interest in finding a mentor, Matt seemed to be a beautiful fit. Tobin, who will soon enter the final year of his undergraduate nursing degree, describes himself as a 17-year brain tumour survivor. He was just a small boy  two and a half years old when doctors found a tumour in his brain.

Tobin and Matt were paired formally through the NurseMentor program at the beginning of Tobin's third year of studies.

When asked what it was like to find a mentor with a similar outlook, Tobin says:

I think it was just neat to find another nurse who was also a cancer survivor. Then just being able to talk between us from a nursing perspective. But also, him being much older at diagnosis versus me and just kind of talking about the similarities of cancer and treatment…and our outlook and thoughts on life.

"For me, I was only two, but just how our view now differs maybe from other people who didn’t go through that experience of cancer and treatment.”

Matt was struck by Tobin’s approach to his illness, having begun that journey at such a young age.

“I always thought that growth had to happen as an older adult but Tobin’s had it his whole life and he’s been growing up with it. Even if he was diagnosed at the age of two, he can carry that compassion with him through all that time, and still hold on to it. I think that’s one big thing I’ve learned.

"I don’t really see myself having that much insight to offer into the world of nursing you know, but talking to Tobin, talking through some things, offering hopefully little nuggets of thoughts or ideas…I think being able to pass whatever I can on has been meaningful.”

Their mentoring partnership began in a very practical way, with a focus on study habits.

“I could sense that I was struggling a bit in school and that’s kind of what kick-started it,” Tobin says. “What kept it going was the fact that Matt and I were able to connect about cancer and our individual journeys. And then how that translated for him and will translate for me into actually working with patients and families and whatever else comes about.”

Tobin, who has had aspirations to work in paediatric oncology, says he will rely on Matt for direction as he begins to put the theory he’s learned at school into practice.

Based on his own experience in nursing school, Matt says he recognized how important it could be to have a positive influence on a young nurse’s life.

“It’s similar to this microcosm of the whole cancer experience again. I think we all find empathy from our experiences. What I would want to bring is this fundamental idea of compassion, that regardless of where you are, you need to bring to the table.”

In nursing, you can get so bogged down in all the facts and information that you forget the human that’s in front of you, and I think that’s the core essence of the kind of nurse I want to be: one who can…almost have a relationship with your resident or patient and hear them, listen to them, treat their pain, treat their symptoms and just really just be a caregiver. That’s what I want to bring. That’s what I want to pass on as a nurse.

Matt and Tobin also know this theory as something more formally called therapeutic relationships, a phrase that’s used often in nursing education. What does it mean to them? Tobin says with a smile: “I have no idea.”

Matt chimes in, “What does being kind mean? It means empathy. See? Stick with me, Tobin. Forget the words ‘therapeutic relationships.’ You just got to be kind, man.”