When Dr. Jennifer Spratlin met Dr. Tony Fields in 2004, she was at the beginning of her medical career and he was one of the most prominent gastrointestinal oncologists in the country. For two years, their desks sat side by side at Edmonton’s Cross Cancer Institute. The doctors came from different backgrounds, but shared a sense of curiosity and commitment to their work.
Fields, who immigrated to Canada from Barbados in the 1960s, is considered a visionary leader in cancer care in Alberta. At the time he and Spratlin met, Fields was the vice president of medical affairs and community oncology at the Alberta Cancer Board and former director of the Cross. Spratlin was a bright, accomplished young oncology resident planning to pursue an academic career. As they got to know each other, a mutual admiration developed. Fields recognized Spratlin’s promise and she was impressed by the breadth of his experience.
“He’s so wise. When Dr. Fields gives you advice it’s not something you take lightly,” Spratlin says.
As she navigated her career, she began to seek Fields’s advice on decisions and professional challenges that medical school hadn’t prepared her for. Gradually, Spratlin looked to Fields as her mentor.
In 2006, Spratlin was trying to choose between three fellowship programs in the U.S. Each opportunity was tempting, and each represented a slightly different direction for her career. Fields acted as Spratlin’s informal advisor. He was familiar with each program and knew many of the people involved, and he also understood Spratlin’s goals. Spratlin valued Fields’s knowledge and she also appreciated his impartiality; he didn’t try to urge her in any particular direction. “His agenda was what would be best for me at that time as a young, budding medical oncologist,” she says.
“He has a way of calming patients when he walks into the room. It’s not something you can teach, but it’s something you can model.” – Dr. Jennifer Spratlin
After Spratlin made her selection, Fields also helped her choose between two funding opportunities for the fellowship. Just as importantly — if inadvertently — Fields helped to show Spratlin the direction she wanted to go. One key reason she chose to specialize in gastrointestinal oncology was because she was inspired by her mentor’s passion for the work.
A good mentor is usually a product of other good mentors. As a medical student at the University of Alberta in the 1970s, Fields says he learned not just from his studies, but from the conduct and bearing of his teacher, Dr. Allan Gilbert. Later in his education, Fields learned about how to behave with principle from Dr. Joe Marotta, the head of neurology and chief of medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, where Fields trained in internal medicine prior to his medical oncology training at the Princess Margaret Hospital.
From observing his mentors, Fields saw how a physician could use his authority not just to heal a patient’s body, but to ease their mind. “Cancer isn’t just a disruption in the body. You have to help patients find equanimity in the space they’re in now,” Fields says.
Like his own mentors, Fields taught this quality by example. Spratlin was impressed by Fields’s constant professionalism, his demeanour with patients and his sense of compassion.
“He has a way of calming patients when he walks into the room. It’s not something you can teach, but it’s something you can model,” Spratlin says.
Fields also credits Marotta with shaping the values and style of his leadership. He says the residents who worked under Marotta at St. Michael’s Hospital felt needed and appreciated, and, in turn, they were committed to the institution. It’s a lesson Fields has passed on to Spratlin, who says she has been influenced by his remarkably respectful approach to all members of his health-care team.
“A medical oncologist’s role is very important in the life of a cancer patient, but so is the role of the nurse, the pharmacy, the clerks who book the appointments and the administrative assistants. I think that’s lost on some people, but it’s never lost on Dr. Fields,” she says.
Spratlin and Fields agree that mentorship is a title better earned than assigned: it’s an alchemical product of admiration, emulation and connection. It takes time for a teacher or colleague to be elevated to the role of mentor, and Spratlin says you can’t force it. Fields never mentored her in a formal or official capacity, but his influence on her career has been deep and lasting. Fields, who has influenced many up-and-coming medical professionals in the course of his career, believes this bestowed responsibility is more meaningful than any title.
“It’s interesting the difference between assuming a role that carries the word ‘mentor’ and actually having someone say years later, ‘Yes, he was my mentor,’” Fields says.
Spratlin had the rare opportunity to step into her mentor’s shoes in 2008, after she completed her fellowship and returned to Edmonton. Fields would soon become vice president of cancer care at Alberta Health Services and was in the early stages of helping create what would become an influential, evidence-based drug review process. He needed to scale back his clinical practice to make time for administrative duties, which would mean handing over his patients to another physician. Fortunately, he knew a brilliant young oncologist whose goals he understood and whose compassionate approach to cancer care he shared — and had played a role in shaping. Fields asked Spratlin to take over most of his practice. “I knew that my patients would receive the ideal I have always cherished,” Fields says.
As a junior, female member of the clinical group, Spratlin worried that Fields’s patients — accustomed to being seen by the most senior member of the group — would struggle to accept her. “It’s hard to compare yourself to Dr. Fields,” she says.
Displaying his professionalism once again, Fields prepared his patients for the transition and made himself available to Spratlin for ongoing questions and advice. Today, Spratlin is a respected oncologist and researcher, particularly in the field of pancreatic cancer, as well as an associate professor at the University of Alberta and a member of the gastrointestinal tumour group at the Cross. To Spratlin, Fields’s support has made all the difference — back when they sat side by side and now that she’s forged her own path.
“He impressed on me that it’s not just about the job, it’s about the person you are in the job,” Spratlin says.