U.S. pharmacists aid stricken Haitians

May 5, 2010

While many people were trying to escape the scenes of death and destruction within Haiti, pharmacists Tamara Neff and Jess Streif were finalizing plans to travel there.

Key Points

While many people were trying to escape the scenes of death and destruction within Haiti, pharmacists Tamara Neff and Jess Streif were finalizing plans to travel there.

Neff, a PharmD who works at Methodist Medical Center in Peoria, Ill., acknowledged second thoughts about the trip. "I was a bit nervous, seeing all the destruction on CNN. But I knew the people needed us," she said.

A history of helping

Based in Peoria, Ill., FOTCOH has been active in Haiti for 2 decades, organizing 6 medical missions a year to the clinic in Cyvadier. Each clinic session lasts about 12 days. This year, FOTCOH is on track to provide more than 13,000 patient sessions at the clinic.

The group is funded through private donations and has no paid staff, which helps keep costs down. "Frankly, the people we serve simply cannot afford even basic medical care," said Mark Purcell, RPh, FOTCOH's director of pharmacy. "Even though medical fees in that area are modest by our standards, these people do not have the money to pay the private physicians in the area. We are their source for medical care." The nearest hospital in Jacmel was rendered uninhabitable by the earthquake, he said.

Work at the clinic

Patient appointments at the clinic were scheduled from 7:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., Streif said. For the volunteers, the long days were filled treating conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, malaria, and skin infections; fighting parasites; and providing nutritional counseling.

Neff said that at the clinic in Haiti her pharmacist responsibilities were much broader than they are in the United States. "There were a lot of therapeutic substitutions and I gave shots," she said. "Here, if we don't have something, we can get it pretty quickly. There, we had to make due with what we had and find other ways to get things accomplished."

Both Neff and Streif were amazed by the graciousness and the determination of the Haitians. "Whether a new FOTCOH pharmacist makes their first trip based on the sense of adventure or desire to serve, most quickly embrace the collaborative approach of the medical team and the gracious appreciation of the Haitian patients," Purcell said.

He said FOTCOH's best recruiting tool for volunteers is word-of-mouth testimony from people like Neff and Streif, who usually are anxious to share their experiences.

While Neff initially might have had second thoughts about going to Haiti immediately after the earthquake, she's already thinking about her next trip there. "The first day I was there, I knew I would be coming back. It's impossible to turn your back on those people," she said. "There are so many needs. If you can help in some small way, why not?"

For more information about FOTCOH, contact Mark Purcell by e-mail at purcell@fotcoh.org or call 309-287-2478.

MARK LOWERY, a former managing editor of Drug Topics, lives near Cleveland, Ohio.