The pharmacy is a service we mostly take for granted in the United States. No matter how tangled our health care system becomes, it’s relatively easy to have a prescription filled when needed, with most people living within a few minutes’ drive of a drug store. Even more than convenience, we’re fortunate to have the reliability of pharmacists, who apply their training to ensuring that people are receiving the correct drug, the proper dose of drug, and that no dangerous drug-drug interactions are risked.
Such routine pharmacy matters rarely cross our mind, but in a post-disaster setting such as Haiti, they are monumental challenges. The good news is that donations of drugs and other medical supplies started to pour into the country soon after the earthquake that killed and injured hundreds of thousands in the Caribbean nation. The bad news was that most of those supplies arrived in the most disorganized fashion possible – giant cardboard boxes and duffel bags haphazardly filled with pills, syringes, bandages and everything else a medical relief effort requires. Each time a doctor needed a particular type of medicine for a patient, they would have to go digging through these boxes for the right drug, like a child searching for the last Snickers bar in a bag of Halloween candy.
So when Dima Awad, a pharmacist at the University of Chicago Medical Center, arrived at the field hospital in Fond Parisien, Haiti, a cheer literally went up among the medical team stationed in the camp. Awad quickly took charge of the mess of medical supplies and set about organizing them into a functional pharmacy, based in one of the rooms of the Love A Child Orphanage unharmed by the earthquake. With the help of a Haitian carpenter who built wooden shelves and a counter using only hand tools, Awad established the first functional post-earthquake pharmacy in all of Haiti. Members of the University of Chicago Haiti Relief team who have returned from the Fond Parisien camp said that this pharmacy may have been the most important contribution the team made to the field hospital.
John Easton and Cheryl Reed (who is in Haiti this week reporting on the Medical Center’s efforts) interviewed Awad last week about her experiences. Awad talks about the challenge of creating a pharmacy from scratch in adverse conditions, how difficult it was to leave her 4-month-old son behind to volunteer in Haiti, the hardships of living in a camp without a shower, and the lasting impact of the relief effort. “After I went through this experience, I truly really feel that the University of Chicago had made a huge difference in Haiti,” Awad said. “We were able to accomplish a lot in just an incredibly short time frame.”