Doing my part in the Hurricane Harvey relief effort

New Practitioner Spotlight By Sarah Iannacone, PharmD

“Why do you want to go into health care?” This is a common question asked in job interviews, among family and friends, and entrance school interviews. For myself and many others, the answer is simple. “I want to help people.”

During my time in undergrad, I watched as fellow health care-bound classmates traveled to villages in Honduras to provide medical aid. I also worked with pharmacists who were part of the National Disaster Medical System with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and had volunteered with hurricane relief efforts in New Jersey when Hurricane Sandy occurred. Seeing others volunteer is what sparked my interest in completing a medical mission trip. During pharmacy school, I always wanted to assist with a volunteer mission trip and give back to a community in need of assistance. However, I wasn’t able to, because as most students know, pharmacy school is an incredibly busy time.

But my opportunity arrived as a New Practitioner.

Answering the call
It was during my first residency rotation with Intermountain Healthcare when I received a phone call from the preceptor for my infectious disease rotation, Dustin Waters, PharmD, BCPS. Dr. Waters had an opportunity for us to go to Houston, TX, to help out with Hurricane Harvey relief. He heard the Texas Society of Health-System Pharmacists was requesting help from pharmacists with expertise in infectious disease and emergency medicine and asked if I wanted to go with him.  

I couldn’t pass up the chance to go.  In September, we flew to Houston to help at the NRG Convention Center’s homeless shelter, which housed more than 2,300 people. We worked the evening shift at the shelter, assisting the physicians and nurses with dispensing medications to the patients staying there.

We made recommendations based on a limited formulary of medications that had been donated from independent pharmacies in Texas. We used our antimicrobial expertise to make recommendations based on possible community pathogens and the ability to store medications. Certain antibiotic suspensions require refrigeration upon mixing and when living situations were inadequate, this complicated things. Although in our make-shift hospital there was a mini-refrigerator that we used to store insulin and other medications, we also had to consider when people found new housing and how they would be able to store the medication later on. We had to think of ways to treat patients without compromising their care.

The experience I had made me realize even more how important health professionals are. We talked with local pharmacists about the aftermath of the hurricane and were told that many area hospitals became shelters, taking people into emergency departments for shelter. One hospital had to close down before the storm hit because they knew they would flood, so they transferred patients to other hospitals to continue proper care. When a natural disaster hits, it is hard to know what preparation requirements will need to be made.

Go for it
After this experience, I realized there are many ways pharmacists can use their knowledge to lend a hand. Administrating vaccinations to people at shelters to decrease the risk of an influenza outbreak, setting up isolation rooms for patients who may have communicable illnesses, and recommending appropriate medications are just a few ways volunteer pharmacists can help.

Going forward, I hope to be able to assist with more medical mission trips, both internationally and countrywide. Helping people is why I went into the health care field to begin with. Giving back to people who have lost everything was an unforgettable experience and I am so glad I had the opportunity to go.

To those who feel like they are too busy to take on a medical trip, I say go for it anyway, as you will not regret it. If now is not the right time for you to get involved, look into the National Disaster Medical System and see if it’s something you could do in the future. There are many different ways pharmacists can volunteer in community events and natural disasters, so do a quick Internet search. You will find the right one for you.