Why I Became a Pharmacist: Searching for Cures, Making a Difference

Sharlene Ghassemi, PharmD
Published Online: Monday, February 17, 2014
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The winner of our third annual essay contest shares her story.
The entries for our third annual essay contest, which asked readers to explain why they became pharmacists, ranged from the humorous to the heartfelt. Sharlene Ghassemi, PharmD, won this year’s contest with an essay that was at once highly personal, moving, and optimistic.

Click here to read essays by the 2 runners-up and the best essay by a current pharmacy student: Alan Atchison, PharmD, MBA, CDE, hepatitis C clinical pharmacist, diabetes educator, Walgreens at the St. Cloud Medical Group, St. Cloud, Minnesota; Robin Craft, RPh, co-owner with her husband, Joe, of Plain City Druggist and Midwestern Compounding Pharmacy, Plain City, Ohio; and Kristen Masood, PharmD candidate, class of 2014, University of Saint Joseph School of Pharmacy, West Hartford, Connecticut.

Does everyone look up to their older sibling the way I do? My brother, Derek, was just finishing the PharmD program at University of California San Francisco (UCSF), and I was finishing my junior year of the chemical engineering program at University of California Berkeley. I had to pick a specialty for my last year—chemical processing, biotechnology, or petroleum. The health care industry was booming, so I decided to spend a day with my big brother at pharmacy school to see if I should focus on biotechnology and head to a pharmaceutical company after graduation.

Derek had worked 2 jobs through most of high school, then college and pharmacy school. I thought that was just his hard-working, ambitious personality, but then I met his classmates. His pharmacy class was more than 100 clones of him. They all interned at 1 or 2 pharmacies and participated in flu clinics, diabetes awareness projects, blood pressure clinics, and research studies. People often say they want to make a difference in the world, but I could tell that these people were the difference. Compassion, knowledge, inspiration, ambition, and a mission to serve were what these future pharmacists were all about.

One day in class at UCSF with Derek and his future colleagues inspired me so much that I decided to complete all my prerequisites and apply for pharmacy school. Just weeks before starting pharmacy school, our mom was diagnosed with cancer—a gastrointestinal stromal tumor. We were told there was no effective chemo treatment. All the more reason to go to pharmacy school—a cure was out there, just not yet discovered.

After surgical resection of the grapefruit-sized tumor and a long recovery, our mother entered a double-blind study, only to relapse with extensive metastases less than 2 years later and find out she had been on the placebo arm. After another massive tumor-debulking surgery and 30 days of hospital recovery, she was placed on the treatment arm—Gleevec. A “cure” had been discovered—by someone else with their own “Why I became a….” story who wanted to make a difference. Someone else’s husband, wife, mother, father, or sibling was out there and needed me to make a difference, too.

Not very hopeful her treatment would work, mom’s goal after starting Gleevec was to attend my brother’s wedding. After his wedding passed, her goal was to attend my pharmacy school graduation, and then to attend my own wedding. Now she asks us both when she can stop taking Gleevec. We say that on her 90th birthday we will discuss it.

Ten years later, I am a specialty pharmacist managing symptoms for hospice, palliative care, and chronic pain patients. Comfort and peace for my patients are the goals of my practice. My brother is still the big man on campus, a regional director overseeing pharmacy services in 2 medical centers and 6 medical office buildings. I guess I became a pharmacist for the same reason he did, to make a difference, just like someone did for our mom.

Dr. Ghassemi is a hospice, palliative care, and pain pharmacist for the Diablo Service Area in Northern California with Kaiser Permanente.

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