Esther Robins was born Esther Manolson on September 13, 1933 in Calgary. She was a granddaughter of pioneers who settled there at the turn of the century. She graduated from the Calgary Holy Cross Hospital Nursing Program with an R.N. in 1955.
In 1976 Dr. Robins was diagnosed with cancer and experienced numerous recurrences and remissions of the disease. After completing treatment for her second recurrence she searched for a way to assist cancer patients who needed help in coping with the disease.
She heard of an American program called CanSurmount, a volunteer help program in which a specially trained, cured or controlled Cancer patient visits with one who is having difficulty in dealing with the disease. Esther Robins travelled to Denver, Colorado in 1978 to participate in the CanSurmount training course. Returning to Calgary, she began the first Canadian CanSurmount program at the Foothills Hospital. Under her direction the program moved into other local hospitals, then spread throughout Alberta and into eight provinces across Canada.
As Coordinator of Alberta and Canada CanSurmount, Esther Robins criss-crossed the country many times explaining the program, training CanSurmount volunteers and their local coordinators in new locations, negotiating with hospital administrators and others to set up the necessary institutional support, giving inservice seminars and workshops to inform and gain support from health care professionals and others, helping to solve problems, and providing ongoing support for each fledgling group.
She was an effective leader who worked solely as a volunteer, making presentations to introduce the program, training volunteer visitors and making visits herself. Despite her own recurring illness and despite institutional red tape, her determination and faith in the program created rewarding successes.
In 1984, Esther Robins was responsible for two videotapes produced by the University of Calgary Departments of Medicine and Education and the Canadian Cancer Society.
The first production was a 50-minute training film to help standardize and ensure the quality of training given to volunteers across the country. Health care professionals and other volunteer groups could use the videotapes as a basis for discussion and as a means to better understand the purpose of CanSurmount and other self-help programs for patients and families.
The second production was a shorter videotape designed to effectively introduce CanSurmount to the widest possible audience of patients, professionals, service groups and others.
In recognition of her dedicated contribution to CanSurmount in Canada, Esther Robins was awarded the Canadian Medical Association Medal of Honour in 1982, the first non-physician to receive the award. She was co-honoured with her husband for outstanding community service at the 1981 Jewish National Fund Negev Dinner, and in that same year, she received an Alberta Achievement Award. In 1984, Dr. Robins was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada, and in 1985, she received an honourary doctor of laws degree (LL.D.) from the University of Calgary.
Descriptions of this remarkable individual invariably include “courageous, caring, sensitive, understanding, dynamic, charismatic, inspiring, decisive, humorous, energetic, persuasive, enthusiastic, visionary, dedicated”. All of these qualities, together with a profound faith, have enabled Esther Robins to take a difficult personal situation and develop it into an opportunity to help thousands of people across Canada.