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U.S. pharmacists aid stricken Haitians

Jess Streif, PharmD, in the pharmacy of the Friends of the Children of Haiti medical clinic, Cyvadier, Haiti. (PHOTOS COURTESY 0F FRIENDS OF THE CHILDREN OF HAITI)
In the days following the January earthquake that devastated Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing even more, there was a mad scramble to flee the country.

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.

In tent cities throughout Haiti, medical care is urgently needed.
They were going to Haiti not as part of an international search-and-rescue or disaster-relief team but as members of a team of volunteer doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other medical professionals and support staff organized by the nonprofit group Friends of the Children of Haiti (FOTCOH). Their destination was a clinic in Cyvadier, Haiti, just east of Jacmel on the island's southern coast, where they would carry out a 12-day medical mission.

"After the earthquake, I wanted to go even more," said Streif, a PharmD who works as an inpatient clinical pharmacist at the Veterans Administration hospital in Iowa City, Iowa. He has made 2 previous trips to Haiti on similar missions. "I knew there would be people waiting in long lines to see us. Some who had walked miles to get to the clinic, carrying their babies."

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
or call 309-287-2478.

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

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