From Haiti to Buffalo: Changing Lives and Molding Minds

Transitions Current Issue

As the newest professor at the D’Youville College School of Pharmacy, I am often asked, “How did you end up in Buffalo?” My response, that I ended up here via Haiti, often throws people for a loop.

MacGyver, PharmD

The morning of January 12, 2010, started out like any other Tuesday. Since graduating from the Pacific University School of Pharmacy in Hillsboro, OR, I had been working part-time for a chain of community pharmacies and part-time at Broadway Apothecary, a local compounding pharmacy. My plan was to buy a house in Eugene, OR, and start spending more time “being a witch at the apothecary.”

Then, the e-mails and calls began to flood in. A massive 7.0 earthquake had shaken Haiti to its core. Hundreds of thousands of people were dead or missing, and hundreds of thousands more were injured. I cleared my schedule and headed down for what I thought was going to be a two and half-week stint at the University of Miami Project Medishare field hospital in Port au Prince, Haiti.

Between the ever-changing volunteer staff and extremely limited resources, we felt like we were part of the ultimate “MacGyver” challenge. I saw more cases of active tetanus in my first week in Haiti than are seen in the U.S. in an entire year. I became well-acquainted with tropical diseases like diphtheria, cutaneous leishmaniasis, malaria, and cholera. All of the thinking outside the box and cultural competency training in the world could not have prepared me for treatment options based on off-label medication uses, sugar cane, and hot water. And the thing is, I loved every minute of it.

Support back home crucial

My colleagues back at Broadway Apothecary were amazingly supportive of my desire to help with the efforts in Haiti. Pharmacists changed their schedules around so that I could leave as soon as possible, and when it became clear that I needed to be back in Haiti, they were all for it. I went on a “long term leave of absence for an undetermined time period,” and Kate James—the owner, and my mentor—helped us procure compounding supplies and resources for my “Famasi Ayisyen,” which means Haitian pharmacy in Creole. Two weeks rapidly turned into a year and a half. Although I didn’t return to work permanently at Broadway, I flew back and forth between Oregon and Haiti. Having the support of one of my mentors made such a difference.

Career opportunity arises

I served as the Chief Pharmacy Officer for Project Medishare for a year following the earthquake. I worked 80-hour weeks and was paid a stipend to cover my in-country and home expenses, as well as a trip to the states every 90 days for a new passport stamp. After two fires, evacuations, and countless floods, we moved into a real building, the Hospital Bernard Mevs. While the number of beds shrank drastically, the care we provided improved.

It was at the new hospital that I first met Robert Leopold, MD, PharmD, Chair of the Pharmacy Practice Department at D’Youville College in Buffalo, NY. He came down to Haiti to volunteer in the pharmacy for a week and was impressed by the active learning environment I had created for the Haitian staff, and the role that pharmacists played on the medical team and in the continuum of care. After spending a week volunteering with us, he asked about setting up a bi-annual Introductory Pharmacy Practice Experience rotation at Hospital Bernard Mevs.

I made my first trip to Buffalo in August 2011 when Leopold invited me to be a guest lecturer at D’Youville. My second trip was in November as a faculty candidate. My third trip was in February 2012, when I moved to Buffalo.

Hands-on international rotation

I am now an Assistant Clinical Professor at D’Youville. When I am in the U.S. I am on campus part-time and will be developing a practice at a community health center for refugees called Jericho Road. I am also developing experiential rotations abroad. To date, eight P1s from D’Youville have spent a week volunteering in clinics and hospitals in Port au Prince, and we are in the process of developing month-long P4 rotations with a Haitian non-profit clinic. We are also exploring opportunities for a joint nursing–pharmacy study abroad rotation in the Dominican Republic.

International rotations give student pharmacists opportunities and experiences not possible in a traditional classroom setting. The hands-on lessons stick with students much longer than something from a book or lecture. Students are immersed in another culture, giving them a very real lesson in cultural competencies. Students often report feeling an expanded world view after studying abroad, and report an increase in volunteerism both here and overseas.

Gandhi once said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” I try to live my life by this quote and look forward to helping my students be the changes they want to see in this world.

Author P.J. Pitts, PharmD, is an Assistant Clinical Professor at the D’Youville College School of Pharmacy in Buffalo, NY. While writing this article in Haiti, P.J.’s computer was destroyed by accident. Proving her dedication, she wrote this article using her Android phone and sent comments back to APhA whenever WiFi access was available.