Hurricanes Gustav and Ike: Pharmacists were vital to relief efforts

November 10, 2008

In the wake of hurricanes Gustav and Ike, volunteer pharmacists from around the country dispensed medications in the field, kept pharmacies open, and helped reopen others.

Key Points

Inside the trunk of Lee Joffee's car is a suitcase packed with combat boots and a camouflage uniform, neatly folded and waiting to be worn. He's not in the military. The suitcase means that Joffee is prepared for the next disaster, natural or otherwise.

Like Joffee, hundreds of pharmacists throughout the United States assisted in some way with relief efforts following Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in September. Some pharmacies donated funds. Some pharmacists left their homes to help provide medication to victims, while several organizations came together to support the continued delivery of drugs to people who desperately needed them.

Disaster veteran

Joffee, an RPh and deputy commander of the New York-2 branch of the Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT), first got involved with emergency relief in the mid-'90s when he was asked to assess New York City's preparedness for a terrorist attack. "It was interesting, because I found out that I knew just about nothing, even though I was a really well-informed pharmacist," he recalled. "I could tell you what you take for your pneumonia, but I had no idea what the antidote for anthrax was at that point. I found that really scary."

Joffee eventually joined DMAT, a network of national medical relief teams funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that is called in to assist with efforts when local resources are overwhelmed. The first major effort he assisted with came on Sept. 11, 2001, with the terrorist attacks in New York. "And now I guess I've been to every disaster since," he said.

This year, he deployed to Texas as the pharmacist leader on the incident response coordinating team following Hurricane Gustav. He had to ensure that teams had appropriate materials to transport medications and supplies to get them to DMAT field members. It also was his responsibility to notify the state pharmacy association and the local branches of the Drug Enforcement Agency of DMAT's presence.

After a week in Texas, he was deployed to Puerto Rico when it looked as if Hurricane Ike would hit San Juan. He transported pharmaceutcals to the island. "It's really difficult to supply an island with pharmaceuticals post-disaster," Joffee said. "So we moved a great deal of material in there pre-disaster in hopes that we would be ready for it."

Disaster pharmacy is extraordinary, Joffee said. It gives pharmacists the opportunity to use skills they rarely get to employ in the "real world." There are no titles, and everyone works as a team, with doctors and pharmacists holding separate responsibilities. "You get to use every skill you have. You have to work with the supplies you have, and the doctors trust you to do what you have to do, and you trust them to do what they have to do. It really is an amazing relationship in the field."

Information coordinator

Erin Mullen, RPh, PhD, is the assistant vice president of Rx Response, an organization that makes sure critical medicines are available during disasters. The program, operational for two years, was activated for the first time this year. Mullen said it became obvious after Hurricane Katrina that providing patients with necessary medications would require enhanced communications.