The Olympic Experience: Helping Team USA
MARCH 25, 2014
Eileen Oldfield, Associate Editor
A pharmacist helps Team USA compete at the Olympics using everyday pharmacy skills.
At the Olympics, a pharmacist’s patients may be professional athletes, but they also have everyday concerns.
Mike Pavlovich, PharmD, knew many of the 2008 Summer Olympic men’s volleyball team prior to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, China. The team practiced in the same area of California where Pavlovich practiced as a pharmacist.
It led to 1 of his most memorable stories about being the pharmacist at those Olympic games, when he attended the team’s victory dinner that followed their gold-medal win.
“On more than 1 occasion, one of the guys would get up and say to their family, ‘Hey, I want you to meet our pharmacist here,’” he said. “’He really helped us a lot.’”
Pavlovich acted as a consultant on the formulary for this year’s games in Sochi, Russia, and also served in a limited capacity during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, England.
“I think each game location has its own personality that certain things are more in need than during other games,” he said. “Tamiflu and cold medicine tend to be big in the winter games. In China, it was GI medicine.”
Now owner of Westcliff Compounding Pharmacy in Newport Beach, California, Pavlovich’s former employer, SportPharm, had established relationships in the professional and collegiate sports world, which led to the company’s involvement with its first Olympic games—the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. At that time, several SportPharm staff members already possessed non-resident pharmacy permits, which made operating the pharmacy slightly easier from a logistical perspective.
Still, supporting operations in Utah from a location in southern California presented other challenges, Pavlovich noted. At the time, communications were somewhat limited, without Skype, FaceTime, or other video calling technologies.
Pavlovich specifically worked with developing the pharmacy formulary and delivery systems for various therapies, he said.
“It was basically the principals you used in everyday pharmacy, but modifying the delivery system and the chain of command,” Pavlovich said. “You had to be well familiar with the banned substance list, and what had to be avoided, and what could be used but had to be recorded. It was a matter of configuring medications in unit-of-dose packaging.”
The company also provided services during the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, and the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. Those particular Olympics added a new dynamic to the formulary—not only did the medicines need to comply with the banned substances list, but they also needed to be approved medications in the host countries.
Going to the Games in Beijing
Approving medications was a concern Pavlovich would experience again, but this time-first hand during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, where he served as the on-site pharmacist for Team USA.
“I was thrilled to have the opportunity,” Pavlovich said. “It was my charge, that area of the pharmacy relationship.” The preparation for Beijing involved ascertaining that the medications being shipped in were not contraband, and then repeating the process when shipping them out, Pavlovich said.
“It gives you a bigger perspective on drugs that are used in other parts of the world,” he said.
The banned substances lists did not represent a tremendous hurdle for Pavlovich or the Team USA staff, however. Most of the banned substances have effective and non-performance enhancing alternatives on which the staff could rely, Pavlovich said.
“The challenge was when an athlete would stop at a Chinese pharmacy and pick up something that they did not have all the information on,” he said.
A Team Effort
Pavlovich was able to help fix these medication issues, in addition to assisting with a variety of other problems that arose.
“Team USA is interesting in that there is a common polyclinic that is available to athletes, coaches, and other people within the games. It’s like walking into a clinic in everybody’s hometown.”
Stationed at the Olympic training facility with 35 other providers, Pavlovich found himself providing both pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical services.
“You had to do whatever it took,” he recalled. “I toted ice multiple times. I assisted with a surgery for a wrestler who had a minor cut on his eye.
“At that time, there were a lot of respiratory conditions and GI (gastrointestinal) conditions that were occurring,” he added. “We dispensed a lot of Pepto-Bismol. There were a lot of worries about MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus), and we weren’t able to send samples to the lab so we kind of had to treat that empirically.”
Collaboration with other Team USA health care providers was paramount, as Pavlovich worked with team physicians, orthopedists, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and sports psychologists.
“On a consistent basis, what was really overwhelming was the lack of ego of the physician staff,” Pavlovich said. “They were so willing and so thankful to have a pharmacist available. They relied on me to make a decision. What was really great was being in the exam rooms as an examination was made. They were really quick to ask, ‘what do we have that we can give this person?’”
Despite any aches, pains, or illness, Olympic athletes still need to perform—and that could mean a trip to the medical clinic’s pharmacy only a few hours prior to an athlete’s event.
“What was neat was when you had an athlete come in and still had to perform,” he said. “It was great to give them a prescription and then see them win a medal. That was very gratifying.”
Practicing pharmacy at the games, though auspicious, remains remarkably similar to a pharmacist’s every day practice, Pavlovich maintains.
“You need to be able to apply the therapeutics of a drug to a given situation, given the information you have from a brief medical history,” Pavlovich said. “It really isn’t any different from your everyday life.”
The Six Degrees of Pharmacy Separation
While working at the Team USA medical clinic, Pavlovich met Fred Roggin, a weekday sports anchor for NBC4, a NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. It turns out that Roggin’s father’s was a pharmacist, Pavlovich said.
Pavlovich also has close ties with the 2008 men’s volleyball team, which is local to the part of California where he practices. During the 2008 Olympic games, the team’s athletic trainer’s wife was a pharmacist.
How to Cultivate Your Future in Sports Pharmacy
Mike Pavlovich’s career treating athletes brought him to the Olympic games, but he’s adamant about the first step: it always relates to basic pharmacy practice.
“I always suggest that the first thing they do is become a good pharmacist,” he said. “They may be athletes, but they are also patients, just the same as everyone else.”
“When you find a niche that appeals to you, develop your skills so that they are the best that they can be,” he adds.
Despite changes to maintaining an in-house pharmacy presence at certain sporting events, there are still opportunities in sports-related areas, according to Pavlovich. Cultivating a practice begins in the pharmacist’s local area, collaborating and networking with practitioners there.
“I would consider seeking out sports medicine practitioners in your location, and developing that relationship,” he said. “For somebody who is passionate about doing pharmacy that is geared toward athletes or any sports medicine area, if you can develop relationships with the practitioners in the local vicinity, they can help you grow your practice.”