Pharmacy's finest hour in New Orleans

September 26, 2005

The individual stories of bravery and perseverance exhibited by pharmacists in the hours and days following the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans are too numerous to document. Pharmacists of all stripes went above and beyond their duty to provide succor to the victims.

Hospital pharmacists, many of whom remained at their facilities for days, worked without power in sweltering temperatures, dispensing medications as well as hope to severely ill patients. Community and health-system pharmacists who braved the harshest of conditions remind even the casual observer of how catastrophe can bring out the best in human nature.

Joshua Titus, Pharm.D., a Chicago-based Walgreens pharmacist, was in New Orleans attending a conference when Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast. On Tuesday, Aug. 30, Titus, and a few physicians and physician assistants, were hunkered-down at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, which was surrounded by three feet of water. Escorted by a New Orleans police officer, Titus waded through the contaminated water and retrieved supplies from a Walgreens pharmacy on Canal Street.

The rapport between the healthcare professionals was extraordinary, commented Titus. "The physicians relied on my expertise, and they respected me as a pharmacist. We developed a great relationship."

Early in the week, as floodwaters consumed the city and most hospitals were forced to close their doors, the Ochsner Clinic Foundation Hospital (a few feet above sea level) remained open. Marianne Billeter, Pharm.D., a clinical pharmacy specialist in infectious diseases, stayed on duty from Sunday, Aug. 28, through Monday, Sept. 5. She told Drug Topics that an aggressive plan, developed before the hurricane hit, helped the facility manage the cascade of patients, many of whom were transferred from the Louisiana Superdome.

The pharmacy had a 10-day supply of pharmaceuticals in-house the weekend before the storm hit. Working under impossible conditions-no air-conditioning or computer systems and only intermittent power-pharmacy managed to dispense medications via a manual system. "We had 400 patients in-house when the hurricane hit," said Billeter. At least 30 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians stayed on duty all week. Asked whether she'd stay behind if another hurricane threatened the city, she replied, "This is my job; this is what I do. I'm glad I was there. If another hurricane came along, I'd do it again."

And it wasn't only the pharmacists on the front lines who did yeoman's work. Chain headquarters, wholesalers, and pharmacy benefit managers poured money and personnel into the Big Easy. Employees from retail pharmacy chains, such as Walgreens, CVS, Albertsons, Kroger, Medicine Shoppe, Rite Aid, as well as independents and wholesalers McKesson and Cardinal Health, worked around the clock to make sure displaced residents received medicine and other necessary supplies.

Billeter summed up the overall attitude that dominated the pharmacy community in New Orleans the week Katrina swept through. "Nobody pulled back, nobody sat back, and there was no bickering. We worked together; we were a team."