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IT IS FOREVER IN MY MEMORY: the incredible destruction that hurricane Katrina caused in the Gulf Coast. Just days before the hurricane hit, I was out celebrating the completion of another pharmacy rotation through Xavier University of Louisiana. I was finally feeling the benefits of all my hard work. Little did I know, there would be a major turn of events that would leave me feeling a mixture of sadness, anger, and total helplessness. It is vastly different to watch the hurricane on TV and live a firsthand account of how Katrina affected peoples'lives, the health care field, and the world of pharmacy. I will briefly share a small portion of my experiences with you.
On the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005, I watched as my home disappeared under the flood waters of hurricane Katrina. There was always "talk" that New Orleans would one day be submerged underwater, but I never could have imagined this! For weeks, I tried to call missing friendssome of whom I have still not heard from to this day. I could see my future as a pharmacist moving farther and farther away as the floodwaters rose. While, in my mad dash for refuge from the storm, I forgot my emergency folder which contained important documents like my birth certificate, pharmacy intern hours, medical records, Louisiana pharmacy student permit, etc. I had no real proof of my identity, and what seemed even worse, I had no documentation of my pharmacy experience to prove my education thus far. My greatest fear was best expressed by the saying I had heard many times: "If it's not documented, then it didn't happen." Could it be possible that I would have to reapply and start over? It sounds pessimistic now, but at the time, it was my reality.
Weeks later, after most of the water subsided, I was able to return to Louisiana for a few hours and found total destruction. My home looked like a war zone. Citizens were carrying firearms to protect from looters what they had left. Through all the damage, I was luckily able to retrieve my emergency folder that I had left behind. The eerie olfactory sensation in the air clearly reminded me that many people died. In addition, the ones that survived were in desperate need of medical attention.
Makeshift pharmacies (mostly tents and such), as well as medical clinics, were set up around the Gulf Coast where pharmacists donated their time and efforts to ensure that victims were able to receive desperately needed medications. I have asthma and was in need of another inhaler. Unfortunately, the pharmacy that I could reach was out of stock and instead supplied me with an over-the-counter "therapeutic equivalent." Katrina redefined the meaning of "therapeutic substitution." If a drug could lower blood pressure for a hypertensive patient, that was all that mattered. If it had not been for these volunteers, the number of fatalities would have been much higher. Seeing pharmacists making such efforts to ensure some semblance of health care made me feel proud to know that I would one day be in the same position to help if needed.
Fortunately, I was able to go to Houston and live with my older brother. I shortly decided that Houston was not the place I wanted to be when I endured yet another grueling hurricane evacuation. I remember traveling about 20 miles in 12 hours, in 90-degree heat. There was no gas to refuel, and many people ran out of water, which was no longer in stock at most stores. It looked more like a scene from Armageddon than an evacuation. I decided that I would go to live in a place where I would never see another hurricane, which turned out to be a long drive to the great state of New Jersey.
This actually turned out to be a blessing, when I got news that Rutgers College of Pharmacy would allow me to rotate with one of their preceptors. It was a great start, but I no longer had a list of future rotations waiting for me once I completed this rotation. As displaced students, we had to find preceptors who would take us into their programs, and it was not easy for us, nor was it easy for Xavier University, to do this.
Relocating was a big adjustment because I had never lived on the East Coast before. It is true what they say about the fast-paced life of the Northeast compared with the South. I was nervous moving to a new city and starting rotations with new students and faculty. My pharmacy class at Xavier was very close, and we strived to help each other through classes and rotations. I no longer had this safety net and was only 1 of 2 Xavier students who relocated to New Jersey. I did not have time to feel sorry for myself. I was able to complete 1 rotation at Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, NJ. While there, I quickly made friends with a Rutgers student named Janet. She immediately went out of her way to help me find my way around the winding-road and sign-less state of New Jersey. She also helped me to find a site for my next rotationMedco Health Solutions in Franklin Lakes, NJ. It was a relief knowing that I at least had a New Jersey pharmacy student who was now looking out for me. If you are reading this, thanks Janet.
While working at Medco, I had the opportunity to connect with alumni from various pharmacy schools across the nation. Most of the pharmacists there had empathy for my situation and helped me a great deal in trying to find future rotation sites. I just knew that, with their connections, someone would allow me into their rotation site in New Jerseywas my assumption ever wrong! At the end of my rotation at Medco, I did not have anyone who could accept me into their extern program at the time. Fortunately, Rondall Allen, PharmD, a professor from Xavier University, was also working extremely hard trying to find sites. He was able to find 2 potential sites outside of New Jersey1 in Houston and the other in Philadelphia. As previously stated, Houston was out of the question, so I had to relocate to Philadelphia and do a rotation through the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy.
I was extremely tired physically and emotionally but was excited that I had another site to attend. My rotation in Philadelphia would be at the Albert Einstein Medical Center. To my surprise and pleasure, all of their preceptors and pharmacy students made me feel right at home and helped me to fit into the grueling schedule of rounds, case presentations, and drug information.
This past year has not been easy. I often repeat the phrase "Anything that doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." Now, I truly understand the meaning of those words. I know that I will use my experience to be the best pharmacist that I can be. I have learned that life will throw you into unexpected situations, but a positive and flexible attitude will allow you to be victorious regardless of the circumstances. To be victorious, you have to "roll with the punches of life."
At the time of completion of this article, Mr. Dickey was completing his last rotation at Albert Einstein Medical Center.