Help Me Help You

Laura J. Zitella, MS, RN, ACNP-BC, AOCN
Hematology/Oncology Nurse Practitioner, Associate Clinical Professor, University of California San Francisco
Carrie Peterson, DNP, RN, AGNP-c
Nurse Practitioner at University of Arizona Cancer Center at Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center

Laura Zitella, RN, ACNP-BC, AOCN, and Carrie Peterson, DNP, RN, AGNP-c, share advice for creating a successful, long-lasting mentor-mentee relationship.

How do you work together? When did your mentor-mentee relationship start?

Laura Zitella, NP: I’m a member of the Advanced Practitioner Society for Hematology and Oncology (APSHO) and serve on its education committee. We heard from our membership that they were interested in mentorship opportunities so, in 2018, we convened a task force to develop the APSHO Mentorship Program, which pairs oncology APP mentors with mentees to share career advice and strategies for strengthening skills. After a pilot program in May 2018, the Mentorship Program officially launched at JADPRO Live, the annual APSHO meeting, in November 2018, and I volunteered to serve as a mentor.

Carrie Peterson, DNP: I signed up for the mentorship program that year, was matched with Laura, and we began the program in January 2019.

Carrie, what were your goals when you signed up for the program?

CP: I started my position at Dignity Health in January 2018, and while I wasn’t new to being a nurse practitioner, I was new to oncology. I’m the only advanced practice provider (APP) in our campus center, so I knew that I could benefit from mentorship from someone who could help me navigate my roles here. I also was looking for someone with similar clinical expertise in oncology to bounce research ideas off of and who could help me get my research ready to publish.

LZ: Carrie and I were matched through the program based on our experience and our interests. The program is designed to last for 6 months, with the mentor and mentee determining the structure of the meetings. After 6 months, we had developed such a strong relationship that we have continued to work together on several different projects.

Once you were connected through the program, what were the keys to establishing the mentoring relationship?

LZ: At the outset, we agreed that it was important to schedule time for phone calls and to commit to those meetings. We set aside 30 to 45 minutes every 2 weeks, and we always met. Sometimes, we would discuss Carrie’s research proposal or her data, and sometimes we didn’t have anything on that front to go over and would instead talk about different cases we had seen.

CP: The simple willingness to meet on a regular basis and be present is huge for a mentor experience. As someone new to the role of an oncology APP, I simply didn’t know what I didn’t know, so Laura offered great advice for my professional development. For example, she recommended I earn my chemotherapy certification even though my center didn’t require it. For me, it was also beneficial to just share our experiences. Without regularly scheduled meetings, those conversations might not have happened.

Where did you learn to be a mentor?

LZ: I have been in the field for more than 25 years and have been fortunate to work with amazing mentors – even though I was never previously part of a formal mentorship program. I feel indebted to the many people who have shared their experiences, their stories, their guidance, and their advice along the way. By the time I signed up for the APSHO program, I had many people I admired and respected to model myself after. Also, I’ve oriented probably hundreds of new APPs over the course of my career and taught hundreds of students as a professor at University of California, San Francisco.

In your opinions, what does a good mentor do?

CP: Laura has been a great mentor. She looks out for me and puts my name forward when she sees appropriate professional opportunities. Without that support, I don’t think I would have achieved what I have at this point in my career. I had a specific objective of wanting to present or publish my research, which looked at whether having an APP working in an infusion center to provide oncology-specific urgent care (for example, managing deep vein thrombosis, neutropenic fever, or infection) would reduce emergency room visits or avoidable hospital admissions. Through our discussions, Laura helped me clearly formulate my research ideas, narrow them down, and put the results in an abstract. I eventually presented a poster at JADPRO Live in 2019.

LZ: At the early stages of their careers, hematology/oncology APPs typically feel overwhelmed by how much there is to know in the specialty, on top of navigating being a new practitioner. My conversations with mentees cover topics ranging from where to access educational resources to going over my diagnostic reasoning and treatment approach for a case, and even how to craft a proposal for a patient care improvement strategy that can be presented to hospital administration.  As a mentor, it’s important to be open and a good listener. Sometimes listening is all someone needs – a sounding board as the mentee works through a problem.

Also, mentors don’t do the work for their mentees; they help them along their paths. A good mentor will identify the mentee’s strengths, then keep an eye out for opportunities where he or she would thrive or be well-suited to contribute.

What does a good mentee do?

CP: For a mentee, it’s important to be open and willing to learn, to push yourself a little bit out of your comfort zone. Laura presented me with opportunities that I might have been uncomfortable pursuing, but I learned to say, “Let me see where this takes me.”

LZ: Many mentees will approach the mentorship relationship with the mindset of wanting a guide, but not knowing exactly what they want or need out of the relationship. They end up looking to the mentor to tell them what they need, which doesn’t work out that well. It is important for a mentee to identify – and communicate to their mentor – the skills and knowledge they want to acquire, as well as the goals they want to achieve. In that respect, Carrie was the ideal mentee. She is energetic, passionate, and motivated and came with a clear idea of what she wanted to accomplish. Now, it’s expanded into much more than what she originally envisioned, but we might not have gotten to that point if she hadn’t come in with specific objectives.

Mentees should know that they are not a burden! They may be hesitant to reach out because they don’t want to bother their mentor, but that’s not how I feel when mentees reach out, and I don’t think that’s how most people who act as mentors feel. We are happy to share our experiences; if a 5-minute phone call with me saves you hours of time or helped you with a tough clinical case, that’s totally worth it!