The story of Dr. Matt Boland '90 and the Patient He Loved the Most
By Justin Seaton ’13
Matt Boland ’90 agreed to meet with me at a coffee house with a patio on a cold morning in early December. He walked up carrying a plastic Schnucks bag.
For an hour and a half, Matt and I talked about his five children, his wife Molly, and his journey to becoming an ICU physician. All the while, the plastic bag sat untouched and unmentioned between us. At the end of our conversation, Matt reached inside the bag and handed me its contents: a t-shirt, a bumper sticker, and a pink bracelet from the TaTa Sisterhood, a non-profit foundation created by Matt’s late wife Tara.
These parting gifts were a reminder that, though this is a profile of Matt Boland, it is indelibly a story about Tara Boland—reminders of whom had sat between us throughout our interview—her battle with Triple Negative Breast Cancer, and how a community was forever changed by her diagnosis, her death and her beautiful life.
The beginning of the end of Tara’s life coincided with the start of another life. Tara was six weeks pregnant with her fourth child when she discovered the lump on her breast.
On May 23, 2012, they got the call. The lump was a cancerous tumor. The diagnosis was Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC).
TNBC is a unique diagnosis. A TNBC tumor tends to grow quickly, and it is less likely to be seen on an annual mammogram. It is likely to spread to other parts of the body early. Common treatments like hormone therapy are ineffective on a TNBC tumor, though chemotherapy can be very effective in the early stages. About 15-20% of all breast cancers in the U.S. are triple negative.
“It is aggressive and tends to attack beautiful, vibrant young ladies like myself,” then 36-year-old Tara wrote on her CaringBridge blog in 2012.
On May 23, 2012, Matt and Tara Boland sat on their bed and cried. Then they made a decision: they would attack this cancer as aggressively as possible, while making sure that their baby survived.
Tara went through 24 weeks of chemotherapy while she was pregnant. She never missed a session. She remained bright, funny and resilient.
“Yes I survived this round,” Tara wrote on her CaringBridge in July 2012. “Not only the side effects of chemo, but also being bold in public just as I am. Proud of myself for getting through the first round. Only 3 more of these to go… Yikes. Let's go back to one day at a time.”
Meanwhile, Matt Boland did what he had been trained to do—he cared for his patient.
Following his graduation from SLUH in 1990, Matt attended UMKC for their six-year medical program. After UMKC, Matt did multiple tours as a Medical Officer and teaching physician in the Navy. There, Matt’s love of knowledge and critical thinking, which he credits SLUH for fostering, was allowed to flourish. Matt would continue teaching medicine throughout his career, first at Saint Louis University, and now at Washington University in St. Louis.
The thirst for knowledge that attracted Matt to medicine and teaching was a buoy during his wife’s battle.
“When my wife was diagnosed in 2012, I knew about TNBC. But I quickly had to teach myself how to be an expert,” said Matt. “My job in the ICU is acute. There’s no longevity. But now I had my own patient. My wife was sick.”
About three months after the healthy delivery of their fourth child, Sam, an evaluation showed that the cancer cells were back and had spread.
“The community very quickly set up a triage unit for Matt and his family, so that every aspect of their life was attended to, and so that Matt could focus on taking care of his family,” said Mike Amann ’97, long-time neighbor and friend of the Boland family.
Matt’s partners on his rotations at area ICUs volunteered to take all of Matt’s shifts. Their family and friends served dinners to the Bolands every night, delivered necessities, drove kids to practices and play dates and helped with homework after school.
This loving support allowed Matt to be Tara’s 24/7 caregiver, and on several occasions, to save her life.
On Labor Day weekend of 2013, Tara’s cancer spread to the lining of her brain and she slipped into a coma. Traditionally, the prognosis at this stage is terminal: six weeks to live.
When Matt brought Tara to the hospital that Friday, Matt’s co-workers rallied. The radiologist came in to read the MRI; the pathologist came in to look at the cells from the spinal tap; the surgeon came in on a Sunday to place a drain in Tara’s skull to relieve the pressure.
For three months, a few times each day, Matt manually drained fluid from her skull as she slipped in and out of comas. And when that could no longer go on, Matt’s co-workers rallied again. Tara lived for six months after Labor Day, and during that time, the Bolands made every day count.
In two years of treatment, Tara met many women who were suffering, often without the support that the Bolands had. So she helped them.
The staff at Mercy hospital had fundraised $5,000 for Tara early in her treatment. They told her to go to Disney with her family. Instead, she started writing checks. She paid for medications and bills, all for other women, all out of her personal accounts.
“She had so much fun doing it,” remembered Matt. “People started coming to her with more and more money to give away. One donor offered so much money they wanted a tax deduction, and that’s when we said, ‘OK, we’re doing this.’ She put together a group of eight of her closest friends, all women plus me, to sit on the board.”
With an entity in place, Tara founded the TaTa Sisterhood: “We are the chemotherapy angels, providing motivational and financial assistance to women suffering from Triple Negative Breast Cancer. As we strive to lessen their burden, we also aim to find a targeted treatment for Triple Negative Breast Cancer.”
Becoming a certified 501(c)3 non-profit organization can take up to 27 months. When Tara and Matt decided to apply, her cancer was in recurrence. They knew she did not have 27 months.
“We formed in October and submitted our documents in mid-January of 2014,” said Amber Walsh, Tara’s friend and neighbor, and a founding member of the TaTa Sisterhood. “With that, we included tons of letters. We focused on the fact that we were not going to have our foundress on this planet for much longer. We called on the IRS to fast-track the application.”
They got their IRS approval, with zero questions, in one month, and Tara Boland was able to see her vision come to fruition.
“I think it gave her a sense of additional fulfillment, among all the other things that she was doing in her personal life, to be here for the first six weeks of her organization’s official status,” said Amber, her voice shaking.
When Tara passed away on April 10, 2014, Matt’s vocation fundamentally changed. He became a father without a mother by his side. What’s more, he became the father of four very young children who would, in their own time, need help processing the grief of their mother’s passing—a grief that Matt would be simultaneously processing.
“Tara tasked me with a few things as she was getting sick,” said Matt. “Some of those were verbal and some of those were written … One of my chief tasks, to quote her, was: ‘Make sure our kids don’t grow up to be horrible human beings.’” Matt laughed. “From there, I had my marching orders. The best way I knew to do that was to make sure they knew they were surrounded with love.”
Matt’s love in the years since Tara’s death has extended well beyond the walls of his home. Matt became determined to repay the support that had lifted him through his toughest years, and to carry on Tara’s legacy as President of the Board of the TaTa Sisterhood.
Their organization has now helped several hundred women in the St. Louis area, and they are determined to help fund studies on TNBC treatments in the future.
Matt remarried in 2017 and has since had one more child, Blake. He continues to teach medicine and work 60-hour weeks in the ICU. In his church community, he has become the go-to person for anything medical.
“Matt is a Man for Others,” said Mike Amann ’97. “In our community, when you get sick, you call Doc Boland. He is as selfless as they come, and he wants to help you.”
“He is an incredibly gifted physician—gifted on a level that you don’t understand until you or a family member is in a health crisis and you see him work,” echoed Amber Walsh. “He is a really, really talented and unique physician, and he shares that with all of us in a very large community. We rely on him.”
Perhaps most remarkable has been Matt’s ability to move forward with his life in the wake of a terrible loss, and to do so selflessly.
But still, always, sitting on the table in front of him is Tara’s memory: her hundreds of CaringBridge blog posts, her non-profit organization, the birthday cards she wrote for each of her four children years into the future when she knew she was dying. And despite Matt’s vibrant smile and broad-shouldered strength, he cried as he shared the parts of his story that belonged to Tara and to the people who love their family.
“The story I have to tell is one that will easily resonate with folks: a local boy makes good, returns home to St. Louis, picks a community that supports the ‘F’ out of him when he hits his toughest challenge, and he turns around and tries to give something back. It’s a story as old as time… And some of the guest stars that make appearances along the way–I may be the focus here, but the story is about them.”
So this is the story of Matt and Tara Boland.
But it is also about Molly, Jack, Rachel, Tom, Sam, Blake and the rest of their big family. It is about Ashley and Laurie, their nannies. It is about Amber, Allison, Laura, Shannon, Amy, Shanna, Kathleen, Mike, Tim and all their friends and neighbors. It is about Fr. Byron, Dr. Germs, Dr. Shoes, Dr. Brains, Dr. Ticker, Dr. Beloved and Dr. Google.
This is a story about so many others who gave Matt Boland the strength he needed to be a man of courage, a Man for so many Others.