As colleges and universities plan to begin in-person classes once again, pharmacy students face several new challenges adjusting to this return from the socially distanced learning they have participated in for the past year.
In the latest installment of the Pharmacy Times® Student CaféTM interview series, students from The University of Texas (UT) at Austin College of Pharmacy reflected on the impact of quarantine on their mental health and well-being and said they are optimistic for the future of the pharmacist’s role in health care following the COVID-19 pandemic.
For students living in Texas during the pandemic, there were additional challenges in the form of the deep freeze experienced throughout the state in February 2021. Kailee Marikar, a PharmD candidate at UT Austin, said balancing her family’s needs in those conditions was no easy feat.
“I have a 3-year-old daughter, and this year was challenging to say the least,” Marikar said. “I was battling the pandemic and the deep freeze, and we lost water at our home for 7 days. We had the power going in and out. There were times when I felt really stressed trying to take care of my family [and] keep up with my coursework.”
In spite of these challenges, Marikar was able to balance her home life and work life, taking on the adversity of the past year 1 day at a time.
“My strategy was to take it day by day,” Marikar said. “I tried to set a routine and set hours from 8:00 to 5:30. When 5:30 hit, I would try to put my laptop away. We did start some new routines; we’d go for a walk after dinner or try to plan a new hike on the weekend to help me unwind. I think that helped a lot, because this year it was really easy to get overwhelmed.”
Managing mental health was a consistent struggle for many pharmacy students. With an entirely new work-life balance arrangement to adjust to and a quarantine to adhere to, the participating students noted that learning how to cope was a unique challenge for them.
“It was definitely very on and off for me,” said Sadaf Helforoosh, PharmD candidate at UT Austin. “I would get into these moods where I was like ‘everything is self-care,’ then I would go on the opposite end, and I wouldn’t even take 5 minutes for myself over a few weeks.”
Helforoosh was able to learn how to balance her time as the pandemic continued, despite the lack of physical separation between her home life and work life. She said she remains optimistic about her ability to maintain a solid work-life balance even as classes return to an in-person environment.
The pandemic also afforded students the opportunity to be directly involved in COVID-19 management efforts, either in the form of rapid testing sites on campus or vaccine preparation. Hannah McCullough, a PharmD candidate at UT Austin, felt she was able to make a difference during the pandemic by working at a rapid preventive testing site.
“It was just people who were on campus doing their part and making sure they weren’t accidentally, asymptomatically spreading COVID-19,” McCullough said. “It was really cool to be a part of that and work with people who were trying to do their part, being really safe and proactive.”
Agaustin Wong, PharmD candidate at UT Austin, had the opportunity to volunteer with other pharmacy students in preparing vaccine doses.
“It makes [us] feel like we’re really helping people, making a change or making a difference despite the pandemic,” Wong said. “This pandemic takes a toll on everyone, and having that sense of protection from the vaccine can give everyone hope that we’re moving forward from this.”
Looking to the future, the students expressed hope that the visibility given to pharmacists by the pandemic will help the public acknowledge the many skills pharmacists have at their disposal, as well as their position as the most accessible health care provider. Cara Rutledge, PharmD candidate at UT Austin, shared her hope that COVID-19 taught the public how critical community pharmacists can be during public health crises.
“I hope pharmacists don’t stop here,” Rutledge said. “COVID-19 was a great test for pharmacists to show what we know and how we can contribute on the team. We don’t just count pills, obviously, and we’re not just a vaccinator. I think the roles will only get bigger and better.”
Helforoosh expressed a similar sentiment, highlighting how pharmacy technicians were given responsibilities during the pandemic after years of advocating for them. She said that technicians were able to prove themselves effective in these roles, and that the best way to move forward is to leverage that success into a push for even greater responsibility.
“I hope people see how much more pharmacy can actually be,” Helforoosh said. “I hope they take what we’ve done, run with it, and grow our field with that, because that’s the only way we’re going to advance our field.”
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