Bringing Dignity and Humor to Pharmacy

Author: Jennifer Barrio, Managing Editor

Elizabeth O'Hara puts patients at ease with her compassionate, and sometimes humorous, approach.


Elizabeth O’Hara

Elizabeth O’Hara, a 2012 PharmD candidate at the South Carolina College of Pharmacy, stands out for her unique view of patient care and her tireless efforts on behalf of those less fortunate. 

Before the current academic year even started, the February Pharmacy Times/ Walmart RESPy winner had already logged 430 volunteer hours since matriculation. This compassionate young student has spent many of those hours helping the homeless population in the community surrounding the school’s Charleston, South Carolina, campus. O’Hara has offered her pharmacy expertise at the Harvest Free Medical Clinic, Crises Ministries, and the CARES Clinic. 

Recently, O’Hara has become interested in a program called Operation Safety Net, a street medicine program led by Jim Withers, MD. She invited Dr. Withers to campus to speak to pharmacy students and others who are interested in providing health care to the underserved. She is working to establish Operation Street Health, a spin-off of the program for Charleston, in which health care providers will seek out members of the homeless population and provide them with dignified, nondiscriminatory care.

This past summer, O’Hara attended the Patch Adams MD & Gesundheit! Institute School for Designing a Society, a 3-week educational program focused on making positive changes, including in the health care system. In the program, O’Hara learned principles of clowning and found that there can be a place for humor in pharmacy.

“Silliness and humor are incredibly powerful tools for care providers,” O’Hara says. “The addition of a simple clown nose creates the space for love to sneak into patient interactions. As a pharmacist, I know I can practice in a compassionate and caring way that fulfills a need I have to care for those around me.”

Although love might not be a word that one is accustomed to hearing in reference to patient care, this unique outlook clearly defines O’Hara’s empathetic and compassionate approach to pharmacy.

Q Why did you decide to become a pharmacist?

A When my dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2004, it was our family pharmacist that played the critical role in his care by being the glue that held a complicated and confusing health care puzzle together. Our pharmacist took the time and energy to ensure that my family understood my Dad’s treatment, and was always there to comfort my Mom when she felt overwhelmed. It was then that I knew I wanted to become that person who is trusted and available to help anyone needing advice or comfort.

Q What has been your most rewarding extracurricular activity?

A That’s easy—working with the homeless. Through the relationships I’ve built with the placeless persons in the world, I’ve realized that those people we often see as most different from ourselves are often more similar than we’d ever imagined. This realization has allowed me to see every person as a brother, sister, mother, or father, and has become a driving force behind my career goals. The assumption is always that one “helps the homeless,” when in actuality, they have helped me become the person I’m proud to see in the mirror.

Q What are your long-term professional goals?

A After graduation, I hope to take a job with Indian Health Service in Alaska or pursue a PYG1 in ambulatory care. I plan to spend 2 to 3 years paying off my student loans so that I will have the flexibility to pursue my long-term goal of working with underserved populations. Ideally, I would like to devote my time to free health clinics and street medicine programs in the pursuit of designing a more equitable health care system for all people.

Q What is the most important quality for a pharmacist to possess?

A The most important quality for a pharmacist to possess is the ability to communicate in an empathetic and compassionate way to both our patients and the health care team. Too often in our system members of the team are left unsupported, and subsequently more likely to experience burnout and compassion fatigue. If pharmacists take a leading role in creating better relationships through communication, we can begin to build a health care system that is based on the solid foundation of compassion and care. PT


About RESPy

The RESPy (Respect, Excellence, and Service in Pharmacy) Award is presented to the student who has made adifference in hisor her community by demonstrating excellence in pharmaceutical care.


About the School

The South Carolina College of Pharmacy (SCCP) was formed in 2004 through the integration of the Colleges of Pharmacy at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia and the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston. The first class of students for the SCCP was graduated in August 2010. The SCCP offers a 4-year PharmD as well as graduate programs on both the USC and MUSC campuses.