An interview with a Sydney pharmacist making a difference on the other side of the world
Grace Yoo was a pharmacy student in Sydney looking for volunteer placements when she first discovered Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).
She found out the international medical humanitarian organisation, also known as Doctors Without Borders, accepted pharmacists in their field projects.
It took five to six years working as a pharmacist to be ready for her first assignment with MSF. Since then, she has never looked back.
What inspired you to work with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)?
As a pharmacy student I wanted to give back using the skills I had learnt and was keen to volunteer. But I could only find positions for doctors and nurses. When I came across MSF and discovered they took pharmacists I was so excited! I worked for several years post-graduation as a community, hospital and consultant pharmacist to develop my skills, and then two years ago I went on my first assignment.
What are your main daily tasks in the field? Is there a lot of variation, or do a lot of unexpected things come up?
I’ve now worked for MSF in South Sudan, Libya and Nigeria. Although the contexts change, the essentials of the position remain the same. As a pharmacist with MSF, your job is to make sure the medical programs have the medicines they need, where they need them, when they need them.
In Australia, where I would receive several stock deliveries a day, this was never an issue. But in countries where supplies are internationally imported, and in projects where conflict or geographical isolation make them almost inaccessible, this can be incredibly challenging.
It takes careful forward planning and an ability to deal with the unexpected.
In South Sudan, I am based in the capital and my role is to support the field pharmacies.
I work with the pharmacists, medical team as well as the logistics team. There are always challenges with the supply of the medicines and medical items. Storage is also tricky for many of our projects. It’s not easy finding an optimal warehouse for the pharmacy as a lot of items are temperature sensitive. Sometimes fridges break or the electricity goes down so the cold-chain is compromised.
One of the things I respect most about MSF is its dedication to maintaining standards – we won’t compromise on the quality of medicines we give our patients – but it doesn’t come easy. We’re constantly having to come up with creative solutions.
What are the main differences between working in the field and working in Australia?
Evidently, there’s the location. My homes with MSF have included tents and places with no or limited electricity. I live with people from all over the world.
From a professional perspective, the availability of drugs is definitely one of the most notable differences. We need to order up to six months ahead, and the type of drugs we require reflects the different health needs.
In Australia, I was mostly ordering drugs for chronic diseases whereas with MSF it’s more acute conditions as well as basic supplies such as pain medications, malaria drugs, antibiotics…
What’s expected of you as a pharmacist is also very different. In the field, everyone chips in. Be prepared to carry a lot of boxes!
What would you say are the main rewards of working in with a humanitarian organisation like MSF?
Working in a team towards a common goal – providing health care to those most in need – is for me what it’s all about. The fact that all these different people, from all these different backgrounds and with all these different ideas are able to come together to deliver that goal is really quite amazing.
The dedication of the national staff is also awe inspiring. We’re always told how important it is that we upskill national staff, and share the benefits of our training, but a lot of the time I learn from them.
However, MSF’s ability to make things happen is where it really stands apart. When I was on an earlier assignment to South Sudan, fighting broke out near one of our projects. We only had an outpatient clinic on site and we had to respond quickly. On the Friday we took the decision to open an Operating Theatre, and by Monday we had a plane loaded with an international surgical team and supplies. They managed to do their first procedure that afternoon. This capacity to respond so quickly and to make things happen in one of the most remote parts of the world is something very few organisations can do.
What advice would you give to other pharmacists who are considering working with MSF?
It’s life changing, it’s rewarding, it has its ups and downs, but overall, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.
Want to work for Médecins Sans Frontières?
Médecins Sans Frontières Australia (MSF) is looking for pharmacists to help us deliver medical assistance to the people who need it most.
You must be able to commit to a minimum of 9 months and be a resident of Australia or New Zealand. Find out more on the MSF Australia website.