Haiti: On-Site and Behind the Scenes, Pharmacists Offer Help

A trained disaster relief pharmacist is humbled and challenged by his deployment to Haiti; meanwhile, the pharmacy community continues to give.

As a chief pharmacist for 1 of the Department of Health & Human Services Disaster Response Teams, William C. Drake, PharmD, is specially trained in disaster relief and was deployed on aid missions during hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. Despite his prior experience in domestic disasters, the level of devastation he has witnessed in Haiti has been “humbling,” Drake admits in a diary entry published by the American Pharmacists’ Association (APhA).

His 2-week deployment began just 2 days after the earthquake, when Drake left his home in Shelby Township, Michigan and boarded a plane, bound first for Atlanta and then Haiti. Upon arrival, Drake was put to work delivering much needed immunizations for malaria, typhoid, hepatitis A, tetanus, and H1N1 to other relief workers and military personnel. From his post at the US Embassy in Port-au-Prince, Drake worked an average of 16 to 20 hours a day, fueled only by a steady diet of bottled water and MREs (meals, ready-to-eat), which, he says, are “not what they are cracked up to be.” When Drake learned from a group of 5 Haitian workers that many families were still in desperate need of food and water, he agreed to give up most of his own rations for the remainder of his time there.

His mission concluded at the end of an active runway at the Port-au-Prince airport, where Drake spent his last night sleeping next to a camp of raucous, cheery workers from the French National Search and Rescue team. As emotionally and physically challenging as the experience was, says the pharmacist, the gratitude shown to him by Haitian citizens, military officers, and other aid workers he encountered during his stay made it worthwhile.

The relief efforts of Drake and his colleagues are just one example of the outpouring of support generated by the pharmacy community in the days since the earthquake. In response to its call for volunteers, APhA received more than 2500 e-mail messages and phone calls from pharmacists offering assistance. Current conditions in Haiti dictate that priority must be given to those with disaster experience, but a database of volunteers is currently being maintained by AphA and will be made available to relief organizations as aid missions continue over the next 6 to 9 months.

Pharmacy organizations have continued to pledge their support in the form of donations, both financial and material. Walgreens workers who donated to the American Red Cross saw their contributions double as the company fulfilled its promise to match $50,000 of employee donations.

Along with its corporate donations, Walgreens has collected more than $1 million from customers and will accept customer donations at its registers through the end of the month. Campaigns in other retail pharmacies and supermarkets have been similarly successful, proving that small donations made by customers at checkout counters can add up quickly.

Many volunteers are coordinating with others in their communities to identify needs, make contributions, and ensure delivery of supplies. As he was preparing to travel to Haiti on a volunteer mission, Cleveland-area physician Paul Vanek, MD, reached out to Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy of Michigan with a request for medications. The company responded within days by raising $3000, which they used to purchase thousands of doses of antibiotics, antihistamines, nutritional supplements, and other drugs to supply the temporary medical clinic Vanek established to help earthquake victims.

Donations of specialty medical equipment, like Parata’s pill-dispensing robots, have also been generous, helping to speed pharmacy and medical operations and support the work of health care professionals on the ground in Haiti.

For other articles in this issue, see:

FDA to Investigate Potential Risk of BPA Exposure

Study Finds Kitchen Spoons Increase Risk of Medication Errors

Exercise Decreases Mortality Rates in Prostate Cancer Patients